In the space of four short weeks Axium has pivoted to become a fully engaged Remote Learning organisation. Our reach has been limited by student and family connectivity, but we have worked on the principles of “something is better than nothing”, and “attempt, analyse, adapt".
COVID-19 has caused massive global disruption to society, and to the education sector in particular –and life at Axium has been no exception. The aim of this update is to share our perspective on how the pandemic has unfolded in rural South Africa, how this has affected Axium and education more broadly, and some of the strategies we’ve put in place to date to ensure that learning can continue for as many children as possible.
How has the pandemic unfolded in rural South Africa?
There are still no positive cases of COVID in the communities in which we work but we watch anxiously everyday as the numbers nation-wide grow and we move closer to our ‘predicted peak’.
Our government acted swiftly in the final week of March when the number of confirmed cases were still in the low hundreds and implemented an initial three week lock-down which was then extended to five weeks. The lockdown was extreme and forbade leaving the house for anything aside medical care and groceries. All work outside of those two sectors was halted, including education. After five weeks of initial lockdown the restrictions have somewhat relaxed. While the relaxing of restrictions has felt positive in many ways, the number of cases in the Eastern Cape continues to rise, and so too our concern for vulnerable members in our community.
Social distancing is most certainly a privilege that few in our country and community can afford. The majority of our community relies on public transport to get to work, to travel to shops and to collect government social grants. A large portion of the community are at risk being elderly or suffering from HIV and TB. Many people don’t have access to running water except from communal taps which may be shared across several families. Lack of access to electricity means that charging devices requires interacting with neighbors or spaza shop owners on a daily basis. The reality is that many people cannot afford to stay at home.
As in many countries, the government has had an unenviable job of balancing the economic consequences of an extended lockdown on poor households, with protecting the health of a vulnerable population.
How has this affected Axium and education more broadly?
While there is still much uncertainty over the coming weeks and months, we’re working on the assumption that some grades may go back to school in early June, but that Remote Learning will be with us for the foreseeable future. It appears that grade 12 ‘matric’ exams will still go ahead at the end of this year regardless of the length of this lockdown. This means that there is more pressure than ever to help prepare our senior learners remotely for their final high school exams.
A number of new rules and regulations have been proposed before schools can re-open, most of which seem almost impossible to execute in many of our surrounding schools. For example, there are not enough teachers or classrooms to decrease the class sizes to acceptable numbers and there are not enough textbooks or resources for each learner to have their own. It is unlikely that sufficient sanitation guidelines can be followed when there is such poor access to water. However, when schools re-open, our learners and teachers will have to return regardless of whether these basic conditions are met. Our Public School Partnership team are working hard to ensure that we have creative solutions to all of these challenges at our eight PSP schools.
In response to this uncertainty, a grade 10 learner recently asked me, “What does this mean for me?”. It is really difficult to answer this question for him and the 1000s of other learners who have been without any educational input for the past six weeks. As many people have pointed out, this virus has not created inequalities, but it has highlighted the vast injustices in our society. Some of our learners have access to a device that can access the internet, and we are running local campaigns to raise funds to provide more devices and data. However, for the large majority of students this is not possible.
How has Axium responded to ensure learning can continue for as many children as possible?
Very few government guidelines have been given for how teachers and learners might continue to work during this period. However, we have been able to train many of our staff around remote teaching and many of our dedicated teachers across our two sites have been continuing to work with their learners virtually (there is an outline at the bottom of our initial update here and some encouraging highlights here). We know that maintaining a connection with school – in some shape or form – is vital for dropout prevention. With this in mind, we have focused our efforts on supporting our existing students in new ways. The details vary by programme and age/grade and range from relatively high-tech to low-tech/traditional as well as regular phone calls and socio-emotional check-ins. We have been fortunate in that we have experience in much of this “new work” already, with our Senior Schools team 12 months’ into a mobile phone pilot, and the community-based reading and numeracy clubs a key feature of the existing Nobalisa model.
Our teams have also been reaching out to parents to offer encouragement and resources for assisting their children. While we are excited about the longer term impact that being able to connect with parents and learners at home will enable, we are also more aware than ever that many parents feel unable to support their kids as they were let down in their own education and battle with foundational skills themselves. These generational inequalities highlight for us the urgent need to improve our schools for the future of our communities.
Common across all our work has been a commitment to careful monitoring, weekly data reviews, and ongoing improvements in terms of reach and quality. We are currently sending data to about 500 people (parents, teachers, students, community-based staff) every week and therefore estimate our reach at about 800-1000 of our 3400 students - around 25%. We are hopeful that with our device and data drive, we will be able to extend our reach to over 75%.
In spite of all these challenges, we are seeing so many inspiring, creative and resilient team members embracing the challenges of lockdown. There is still a long way to go but we are now in a position where we are clear about what works, what we’d like to do in this next phase, and what it will take to extend our reach. We are hopeful that the skills we are learning now will aid us and our learners once a new normal is established. We hope there will be more opportunities to work (safely) with children soon. Thank you for remaining hopeful with us in this difficult time!
Strength to everyone in whichever ‘phase’ you may be preparing for.