Schools have been closed now since March 18  and so far 32 days of school have been missed. By the time learners in the early grades return to school, the proposed phasing in approach indicates that 82 days of schooling will be lost for Grade 3 and 92 days for Grades 1 and 2. For the majority of these learners educational activity has completely stopped. Despite good intentions, the department of basic education’s curriculum response has been extremely limited.  

Efforts at providing television and radio offerings have been piecemeal, uncoordinated, poorly publicised and, for the lower grades especially, unconnected to the curriculum.  Provincial education departments have focused on online solutions which are inaccessible to most learners. The 2018 General Household Survey shows that 80% of homes have no computer and 90% have no internet.

In their proposed policy document, “Curriculum Trimming and Reorganisation” (CAPS) the department has promoted the idea of curriculum trimming as a response to loss of school time from the beginning of the pandemic. Rationalising some of the content of the CAPS was a pre-Covid-19 proposal, in response to a widely held view (in part supported by research) that the curriculum is overloaded. Thus trimming the curriculum, done carefully and in consultation with subject experts, would appear to be an appropriate response and the document provides clear steps to achieve this.

The document, however, only addresses curriculum coverage once learners are back at school, sidestepping the reality that the youngest learners have been, and will be for some time, out of school. These learners are in the most critical, foundation phase of their schooling, where their entire educational careers rest on mastery of reading and number concept in these early grades.

A further complicating issue is that these children who have received no schooling and no curriculum input in their homes for three-and-a-half months will probably experience a slump in their learning. We know from research in developed countries that this will affect children living in poor environments more, and especially in mathematics and reading. Children returning from the lockdown period will not only need to cover the curriculum, but the majority will also require revision in curriculum content already covered, especially in mathematics concepts and additional remedial time for reading.

The situation is tragic for individual young learners, but it also has broader systemic implications. Recent research shows that on international standardised tests we have shown an improvement in the reading scores of learners (albeit off a low base). The rate of improvement is argued to be more than one can reasonably expect in an improving educational system. It would be a pity to lose traction in this improvement trajectory: it provides much needed motivation and encouragement to the teachers, NGOs and educational officials who have worked tirelessly to bring the improvements about, as well as to caregivers and their children. So what is to be done?

Get children back to school as quickly as possible

While attending to the safety of teachers and learners, get the early grades back to school as quickly as possible in order to mitigate further learning losses. Arguments in both academic journals and the media suggest that the role of school closures in preventing the spread of Covid-19 is negligible and there are significantly reduced risks of children under 10 in both contracting and transmitting the virus. There are also good non-curriculum related reasons for getting children back to school, including alleviating parents of childcare as they return to work and providing children with much needed nutrition through school feeding.

It’s a crisis — subject trade-offs are necessary

Prioritise mathematics and languages and suspend most or all other subjects in Grades 1 to 4 for the remainder of the year. Given that the lower grades will lose the most teaching days as policy currently stands, prioritising these subjects will be crucial to cover the necessary foundational content for progression to the next grade at the end of 2020. In particular every effort must be made for those learners progressing from Grade 3 to Grade 4 to ensure that they are able to read as they move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”. It is also essential that these learners be well grounded in number concept.

Text not tech

As soon as school management teams return to school on  May 25 we need to first distribute to every Grade 1-4 learner the second department mathematics workbook from their previous grade (for example, if a learner is in Grade 3, give them the second Grade 2 workbook). These workbooks (full colour workbooks delivered annually to every child in 11 languages) will enable learners to revise content that they have already been taught. The books are likely to have been delivered to schools for the third term already, and top-ups can be ordered and printed. Second, we need to provide every learner with a copy of the Vula Bula reading anthologies. These collections of stories (200 pages) in full colour at different grade levels will provide learners with much needed reading material that they can work through with caregivers, siblings or neighbours.

The proposed distribution of text to learners is relatively straightforward. It does not require the development of new material, and in many cases workbooks are already available at schools. The Vula Bula can be printed rapidly and at low cost. According to the company contracted by the department to deliver the workbooks, 1-million could be printed each week starting this week. Over three weeks that would be 3-million readers — the number of Grade 1-3 learners in schools. In addition, extending the work of existing contractors would mitigate the need for lengthy tender procedures. The minister has given permission for learners to collect books from school when they open. We need to put hard copy texts focused on foundational learning into their hands.

• Hoadley is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Cape Town.

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