Pretoria – South Africa’s coronavirus infections are increasing by around 12 000 daily, exerting massive pressure on the public and private health sectors to arrest the runaway figures.
Infections in South Africa have this week sped past 287 000 and President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced a new set of interventions, which include a night-time curfew and a ban on the sale of alcohol.
However, schools remain open and additional grades are set to return to schools, sparking anxiety among parents and threats from sections opposed to the reopening of schools amid the pandemic.
Since the reopening of schools for selected grades, several schools across the country have had to temporarily close and decontaminate after numerous cases of Covid-19 were confirmed.
An unprecedented number of parents are experimenting with home schooling despite warnings from experts about the pitfalls. Numerous schools and universities in South Africa have embraced online learning, but the cost of data is cited as a major hurdle in the new revolution of virtual learning.
Promoted as South Africa’s first virtual school and offering both the CAPS and Cambridge curricula from Grade R to Grade 12, Think Digital College, headquartered in Pretoria, has been offering online classes to thousands of learners across the country for several years, even before the Covid-19 outbreak.
Think Digital College’s chief executive, Janessa Urquhart, a campaigner for e-learning, believes contact-less education has always been inevitable in South Africa and the rising Covid-19 infection figures indicate that the schooling system will be disrupted significantly as more court challenges loom over the physical reopening of schools and more parents opt to keep their children at home, fearing coronavirus infections.
“There are signs suggesting that Covid-19’s disruption of the education sector could have a lasting impact on the way we teach and learn.
"Our current education model is very much top-down in its approach, where a teacher instructs and provides information, usually only utilising one teaching modality.
"Yet educational psychologists have always contended that children learned best when they constructed their own knowledge and learnt tasks that are culturally relevant,” she said.
“The spread of Covid-19, and the closure of schools has become a catalyst for change, forcing us to look for innovative ways for our children to continue their schooling.
"Educationalists, government and the business sector have come together to utilie digital platforms for teaching and learning. These platforms are opening the doors to more flexible and interactive ways of learning, where the learner takes ownership of their educational experience, working at their own pace and engaging with the learning material.”
She said South Africa’s education sector has been ripe for change and now needs to quickly adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances.
“Instead of looking for stop-gap solutions, let’s consider how education in this country can benefit from these changes in the long run.
"Can we change how we curate content in a way that benefits both visual and auditory learners? How do we make lessons more engaging so that even learners with concentration challenges remain engrossed and involved in their learning?
"And most importantly, how do we close the digital divide in our country,” said Urquhart.
“The use of digital platforms to replace the classroom means that the quality of learning is dependent on the level and quality of digital access.
"Unless data costs decrease and access to digital platforms increases, a vast number of our learners will not be able to benefit from this educational paradigm shift.”
Some parents, education stakeholders and principals have amplified calls for the Department of Basic Education to reconsider the decision to reopen schools.