Pupils wearing protective face masks on the first day back to school. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)
Pupils wearing protective face masks on the first day back to school. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)

The new ‘normal’ has come at a cost for pupils

By Mercury Reporter Time of article published Apr 19, 2021

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DURBAN: Education expert Dr Felicity Coughlan, director of The Independent Institute of Education, says for most children regular schooling has not yet resumed and the new “normal” has come at a cost.

Coughlan said while schools and teachers continue to do their best to proceed with schooling, in accordance with Covid-19 protocols, education has not returned to normal.

She said children, in both limited and well-resourced public schools, are still attending school on a rotational basis instead of full-time, due to space constraints and the inability to ensure social distancing.

It is understood that children learn less when stressed, she said.

“In periods of social and civil unrest, they are impacted not only by their lack of access to school, but also by what happens when they are at school and the ongoing and pervasive sense of uncertainty.”

Coughlan said all children were impacted by this, and that the current learning conditions are not optimal for the confidence and calm needed to learn best.

She further explained that one of the less obvious challenges, among others, is the cost that wearing a face mask comes with for children at school.

The experience of smiling and seeing the smiles of others is not just an emotional one, she said.

“It changes the way our brains work as it releases hormones of pleasure. Smiling and seeing the smiles of others physically protects us against stress and its effects.

“Just not seeing the smiles of your classmates is a daily cost to children,” says Dr Coughlan.

However, Coughlan noted that wearing a mask is a major weapon in the fight against Covid-19 infection.

Another challenge is the long-term consequences of pupils not learning mathematics in the proper way.

“If you are only at school three days out of five or every second week, there is no consistency in the learning process.”

To address the lack of in-person teaching time, some schools are focusing intensively on Maths and languages.

“This is understandable, but there is a social cost to relegating social subjects to at-home learning,” said Coughlan.

She said other schools were sending a great deal of work home. If children do not understand the work, the problem is compounded.

“Others are making their teachers available for hours each day to respond on WhatsApp to children – depriving exhausted teachers of recuperation time.

“None of this is negligent and none of this is motivated by anything other than a desire to do the best possible.”

Coughlan said if these were just short-term issues that could be dealt with when things returned to normal, there would not be a major problem.

“These are just indicators of what makes us effective as humans. In our complicated world – where what was, is never going to come back – they are anything but simple or trivial.”

She said society has a collective responsibility to think about and act upon this situation.

“We have to ask ourselves as corporates, as parents, as the public broadcaster, as provincial departments and as universities – what role can we play to ameliorate the impact of this pandemic on the sums and smiles of all our children?”

She said, with less privileged children in South Africa, children have had an unequal playing field and, due to the pandemic, this gap has widened.

“We need to listen with care and respect the teachers who truly understand the impact of all of this on sums and smiles, and we need to harness and spread the goodwill, excellence, solutions, and new ways of thinking and being that they offer.”

Coughlan said if society does not accept that we need to change and not wait for things around us to change, “we will be judged accordingly by the state of sums and smiles of the next generation.”

THE MERCURY

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