Kids are back at school in South Africa and many other parts of the world. According to the United Nations, however, 168 million children have not returned to school, raising concerns about the future of their education. Mark Potterton examines the academic and social impact of disrupted education and the efficacy of online learning.
The COVID-19 pandemic drove entire communities online in 2020. It was a necessary measure to ensure that the wheels of the economy could continue to turn, albeit at a slower pace. Online platforms became our professional and social connection to the world.
Similarly, education in many parts of the developed world went online. With very little lead time, teachers and learners quickly learned to navigate online learning platforms. It was not ideal, but it allowed learning (for some) to continue during lockdown.
But what about the millions of children who did not have the opportunity to receive online education? In South Africa alone, 13 million children did not receive adequate schooling during the lockdown, according to the Public Service Commission.
Even more frightening, UNICEF in early March created a public display in New York, showing 168 empty desks. These represent the 168 million children worldwide who have not returned to class since the start of the pandemic. A total 214 million children missed three-quarters of the 2020 academic year. Frighteningly, these figures do not include statistics for sub-Saharan Africa — probably due to the lack of data.
Government decisions, resources hamper school reopenings
News reports show, however, that Africa did not fare any better than many other parts of the world. Ongoing lockdowns and stringent restrictions continue to hamper the full reopening of schools. Many schools in Uganda, for instance, are private boarding schools. A large percentage of these have not received permission to reopen their boarding facilities. Practically, this means that many students haven’t returned to school. Without a salary, the teachers have gone in pursuit of other ways to make money.
In Mozambique, the President only announced the “total reopening” of schools for face-to-face learning on 4 March, eleven months after they were closed. Ongoing pandemic waves in Kenya has resulted in multiple disruptions to school. The most recent closure in March will keep schools closed until 10 May. Only students writing public examinations have been allowed to continue going to school.
This situation is likely to be similar across the continent and one that is likely to continue as new COVID-19 outbreaks send countries back into lockdown.
School closures threaten vulnerable children
Here in South Africa, the pandemic reminded us of the inequality in our country. Schools had to make decisions about the learners’ academic progress based on their resources. Some schools, mostly in the more affluent urban areas, still combine online and in-person teaching to reduce the number of learners at school at any given time.
In crowded township schools in which schools also double as necessary child care service for working parents, online schooling is just not an option. Children in rural schools similarly could not make use of online learning. For them, learning can only happen if they are at school. This mirrors the findings of an international survey, which showed that the lockdown impacted children in vulnerable communities more than their affluent peers.
Especially worrisome, the report warned that the loss of several months of learning could have a cumulative impact on these students’ academic progress in years to come. Italy has already reported a higher than usual high school dropout rate since the start of the pandemic.
Another study from Uganda warned that already poor school attendance could worsen with large numbers of school dropouts, especially girls who are forced into early marriage, work, or care of their younger siblings.
Online education misses out on full spectrum of learning
Where schools have reopened, the priority is to make up for lost time. Teachers are mostly prioritizing the skills and concepts that were missed. Learners are happy to be back at school. The novelty of learning from home has worn off. They are happy to see their friends. Younger learners are excited to engage with their teachers and peers again.
A year later, educators mostly agree that online education cannot replace the benefits of face-to-face teaching. One leading expert described the year-long experiment as a form of “temporary distance education,” but warned that it is not conducive to effective learning.
The online experiment also highlighted that distance learning cannot adequately give children skills that are better learnt in a physical environment. Only by being at school, can they develop social skills, learn self-worth and receive psychological support for a range of domestic and emotional problems.
A Lancet article focusing on children with mental health needs noted that school closures resulted in a lack of access to other resources that are normally available to them. School routines are important coping mechanisms for young people with mental health issues. When schools are closed, they lose an anchor in life and their symptoms could relapse. Studies also found that children with depression found it difficult to readjust to normal life when school resumed.
Many students have experienced loneliness during lockdown and were affected by lack of physical contact with their friends, families and peers, as well as boredom and frustration associated with a loss of the activities they have been used to taking part in. Children have also been worried about their education and returning to school. Economic pressures have also exacerbated household tensions.
Other students found it had to self-organise. Time management, organisation skills, and self-discipline are a real problem for many children. Without guidance, it became difficult for them to balance priorities in their lives. The daily school routine gives children the parameters they need to organize their learning activities.
Reflecting on online learning, I am not convinced that a “machine” can replace the teacher, as B F Skinner argued in the last century. The interrelationships and the social dimensions of teaching cannot be underestimated. In his incredible book “Natural Born Learners” Alex Beard explores the future of education. He concludes that teaching purpose, values, and ethic, and developing wisdom form an essential part of education which cannot easily be taught online.