Government’s decision to suddenly close schools amid a third wave of Covid-19 infections has, once again, exposed the digital divide between farming and urban communities. This is the view of Joanne King, project coordinator at the Winterberg School Trust (WST).
Based near Tarkastad in the Eastern Cape, WST is a low-cost independent school for the children of farmworkers. King says they have decided to privatise government neglected rural schools.
“We tried our best to keep our learners abreast [during the Covid-19 pandemic]. However, in the rest of our rural schools, this was sadly not the case as they did not have the means to do so. We have many obstacles in our endeavour to achieve,” says King.
Last year, during the first hard lockdown, WST travelled 300km to drop off schoolwork at various farm gates for learners on Mondays.
Then, on Fridays, the work would be fetched for their educators to assess.
King says the Winterberg school has been fortunate to receive computers donated by supportive companies. However, this does not help their learners when they’re home for extended periods of time, such as the current 14-day hard lockdown. “We have no cell phone reception in our whole area and, obviously, our families have no devices either.”
Government should re-think its approach to rural schools, believes King. “They need to take a serious look at the support they are meant to be offering to rural schools. By networking with the private sector, a great deal could be accomplished. Our rural children are hungry for quality education.”
Google Classroom to the rescue
Meanwhile, Piet Steyn, the principle of Marlow Agricultural High School in Cradock, an hour’s drive from the Winterberg, describes the early school closure as “very disruptive, especially as far as assessments are concerned.”
Speaking to Food For Mzansi, Steyn says scheduled mid-year tests will not be completed at this stage. He foresees that this can only be done when schools reopen on 19 July for the next term.
“It is disruptive, but we all expected it during these times. We are, however, in a privileged position to offer online classes to our students.”
However, e-learning comes with many challenges.
“We are an agricultural school. Learners reside on farms where the reception is not always good. So, we make more use of [pre-recorded] classes where the lessons are placed on a platform like Google Classroom.”
This is not ideal, says Steyn, because not all of Marlow’s learners have equal access to the internet and devices. He is also unimpressed by government’s decision to reopen schools a week earlier than initially scheduled.
“Opening in the middle of the [third] wave, or when it has not yet peaked, may be risky. I think opening it [public schools] too early, is risky but this depends on whether the third wave aggravates,” Steyn says.
Cofimvaba learners ahead of the curve
Food For Mzansi has also reached out to Memani Nomadamba, principle of Faltein Senior Secondary in Cofimvaba, 79km east of Queenstown. She says proper planning has thus far allowed them to stay ahead despite Covid-19 challenges.
Nomadamba says, “We don’t really have concerns. We are far ahead of the syllabus in our school. This is because we usually do [additional] Saturday and Sunday classes.”
As soon as schools are allowed to do so again, Faltein learners will benefit from additional classes. “We will be continuing extra classes to try and stay ahead,” vows Nomadamba.
Broken promises in the Eastern Cape
Meanwhile, Eastern Cape education MEC Fundile Gade has the mammoth task of ensuring that all of the province’s learners get urgent access to the internet.
Many schools currently do not have any form of online access.
Gade recently found himself in the firing line for failing to deliver on a promise to connect 1 000 rural schools to broadband internet by June this year.
In response to a parliamentary question during a recent sitting of the Eastern Cape legislature, Gade admitted that not a single school has been connected.
He blames the delays on lengthy procurement processes, saying government still needed time to finalise contracts. Gade failed to specify if the internet connectivity would only be available to teachers and other staff, or whether they made provision for learners as well.