It is back to school today for more than 12 million learners. Many are anxious after a recent spike in Covid-19 infections and death. However, Duncan Masiwa reports that in Bonnievale in the Western Cape both learners and teachers are ready to hit “play” on the new academic year.
It’s just gone ten o’clock on Friday, 5 February 2021. With ten days to go before the opening of the 2021 school year, I made my way to the Jakes Gerwel Technical School in Bonnievale, a village along the banks of the Breede River in the Western Cape.
The school, built by farmers, the private sector and government, is filled with excitement. Two grade 12 learners and I are standing between rows of vines on its premises. Mary-Ann Swart and Kathryn van Zyl are eager to share their experience.
Bonnievale is expecting 36ºC today.
Thankfully, a cool breeze sweeps through the vines.
Filled with fear, Swart and Van Zyl recall listening to President Cyril Ramaphosa in March last year when he first announced that schools would be closed as part of an extraordinary range of interventions to curb the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
The initial three-week closure turned into months of being stuck at home.
An agricultural hub
Barely two hours’ drive from Cape Town, the town predominantly produces fruit, wines and dairy. Of the 9 000 people who live there, most are employed by surrounding farms.
“This school changed my life,” Swart exclaims, pondering about her time at the school which opened in January 2018. Though much of the funding came from the private sector, the people of the Mountain View neighbourhood take pride in it because they too invested in bricks at just R2.50 each.
Swart, who joined the school in grade 11, says, “I feared what my future would look like if I could not go back to school. There are too many opportunities attached to Jakes Gerwel Technical School.”
TO BUILD THIS SCHOOL, MANY LOCALS, INCLUDING AN architect, land surveyor, engineers AND attorneys, WORKED PRO BONO.
Bonnievale learners really did not want to stay at home, she adds. “It felt like the dreams I had for myself would no longer come true. It’s as if my world came to a standstill for a second time.”
Pregnant at 16
The first time this happened was when she fell pregnant at 16.
In this community, it would not have been frowned upon if Swart decided to drop out of school. Six out of every ten learners that started school never matriculated, anyway, although everything changed when the Jakes Gerwel Technical School opened.
Swart says, “I really want to complete my schooling career, so when they closed schools, I was worried that this would not happen. I feared what this would mean for my matric year.”
Growing up in Bonnievale, both Swart and Van Zyl are no strangers to poverty. Driving through the neighbourhood, one cannot unsee the poverty etched on many faces and homes, one short street after the other.
Here, poverty, unemployment, and abuse are a triple threat. The school, however, has become a beacon of hope to this once despairing rural community.
Last year, with the phased reopening of schools, learners had to quickly adjust to their new normal. Adjusting, however, has been far from easy.
Living conditions at Swart’s home, she says, are not conducive to studying. On top of that, she is a mother to a three-year-old son. “I had to set a strict schedule, so I could make time for my son, schoolwork and house chores.”
A new way of learning
Every morning, she woke up at around 07:00. First, she ensured that her son was bathed and fed. “We play for hours,” she says. “I do whatever he wants to do. I have to because he plays himself so tired that by the time I need to study, he is fast asleep.”
Until the virus hit South Africa, Swart was used having her teachers at an arm’s length whenever she battled to understand something.
With distance learning, this proved to be challenging. “I had to struggle on my own. It was very difficult for me.”
She adds, “At home there are too many distractions. Everyone is making a noise while you are looking for silence. At school you can focus better.”
In contrast to Swart’s distant-learning challenges, it was the nationwide talks about e-learning which spooked Sauls more.
“I mean, I don’t even own a cell phone, never mind (having an) internet connection. How was I going to pass my grade through online learning.”
Across the country, schools who could afford it, embraced the opportunities of online learning. Learners effortlessly used educational systems like Google Classroom or even Zoom, while others received video lessons via WhatsApp.
Home visits by teachers
For Jakes Gerwel Technical School, however, this wasn’t an option. Principal Albert Mocke says, “Few of them have cell phones and far less have computers. So, trying to teach through WhatsApp or even Facebook was just out of the question.”
Teachers then decided to, instead, drive out to learners. Every Monday, they would hop into their cars to hand-deliver study packs with worksheets to be collected a week later.
“It was quite challenging,” Mocke says. “But it was our second-best option. Thankfully, our entire team bought into the idea which helped ensure learners do not fall behind.”
Johan van Niekerk, who teaches agricultural management practices, says distant learning also challenged teachers.
“We weren’t with the kids, so it was difficult to monitor them. As a teacher, you could only hope that the children would do their homework,” he says.
“It was good to know that they cared about us so much to go to all that effort,” says Swart. “It allowed us to pick up on work we had fallen behind on.”
Meanwhile, in the Van Zyl household another pandemic-induced problem was brewing. When the country went into its first lockdown, both Van Zyl’s farmworker parents were at home. With no steady income, their household suffered.
Thankfully, the school’s feeding programme continued.
BEING A no-fee school DOES NOT MEAN THAT excellence IS NEGOTIABLE AT JAKES GERWEL TECHNICAL SCHOOL.
Mocke says keeping the feeding scheme going was non-negotiable to them. “Most of our kids struggle and they are dependent on the food they receive here. The feeding scheme played and continues to play a big role in the community.”
The efforts of the Jakes Gerwel Technical School’s teachers have not gone unnoticed. Both Swart and Van Zyl were grateful for the house calls.
Following the extended December holiday, both learners look forward to grade 12.
“It’s my last year on school and I’m one of the first (group of) JGT matriculants,” says Van Zyl. “I’m going to be part of history and that’s very exciting. I also look forward to improving my marks.”
Ready to make history
Mocke hopes that distance learning wouldn’t be as necessary this year. Initially, the school’s overall marks dropped significantly during the pandemic.
“The best place for a child to learn is in a classroom. To hand out work and not explain it is difficult. Luckily when schools reopened, we could bring all our kids back and improve marks,” he says.
With spaced-out learners’ desks, controlled outdoor movements and hand sanitisers in each classroom, Mocke feels ready to give this year his best shot. The school has even installed a unique Covid-19 screening and sanitising booth.
Designed by Afri.can micro-factories and located at the school gate, the “good-to-go” box features five cubicles which learners walk through. It scans their temperatures and automatically loads on an online system.
While “in the box”, learners are also sprayed with sanitiser. A metal detector can be found towards the exit to ensure a gun-free environment.
“I am excited about the 2021 academic year,” Mocke states. “I think we are very fortunate to have enough space to maintain social distancing and allow all the kids back at school.”
The learners don’t know it, but their teachers have been preparing for the big reopening since the beginning of February this year. They are roaring to go, and to continue shaping this no-fee school into the miracle school it was destined to be. A school where the community actively works together to create a brighter tomorrow.