Data published by the Telkom Foundation shows the Covid-19 pandemic has harmed school learners in the critical areas of mathematics and science. The data reveals that the lack of face-to-face learning under lockdown has seen high-school learners regressing.
Across the country, classrooms are filling up again as the third wave of the pandemic starts to ebb. However, the lingering impact on learning is of concern.
“The Telkom Foundation has been monitoring data from schools we support across the country since 2018,” said Sarah Mthintso, CEO of the Telkom Foundation. “Regrettably, we have seen the negative impact of the pandemic – and the unavoidable closure of schools – has had on learning.”
Globally, the World Bank estimates that the closure of schools affected 1.6 billion learners. South Africa was among those countries forced to impose strict lockdown conditions, which halted classroom learning.
The Telkom Foundation said it aims to offer learners and unemployed youth access to digital skills to prepare them for the future world of work. However, with lockdown restrictions, most South African learners did not have immediate access to online learning opportunities.
According to published reports, South Africa’s internet penetration rate is only 64%, leaving more than 20 million citizens unable to access the Internet. This was compounded by evidence that at least 14% of South Africans live in crowded informal settlements, further complicated by high unemployment levels of more than 30% before the pandemic hit.
“Covid-19 has exposed a challenging and unequal education system,” said Mthintso, “and this exacerbated existing stark inequalities in South Africa.”
The Telkom Foundations initial diagnostic assessments conducted with learners in Grade 9 found that several learners had deficiencies in math and science, many of which were carried from the intermediate phase at primary school, impacting their ability to excel in these subjects.
This meant that the Foundation had to focus on both grade-level and remedial approaches to close the gaps. The Grade 9 learners surveyed showed an improvement from a Grade 3 level understanding to a Grade 5 level before the impact of the Covid pandemic.
“Over the years, we have seen learner improvement as a result of this targeted hybrid approach, however with Covid-19 restrictions and learners missing contact learning time, some have regressed in key areas, particularly problem solving, algebra and measurement,” said Mthintso.
The foundation noted that the transition from face-to-face to online learning proved challenging for both teachers and schoolgoers.
The introduction of technology to mitigate the risk of reduced learning, the preparation and support of teachers, and the benefits of classroom learning cannot be underestimated, she said.
“If managed properly, the introduction of technology in the classroom could allow teachers to adapt and modify their teaching styles to accommodate the needs of individual pupils. It also could support social interaction, memory development, critical thinking and the ability to work through difficult concepts together.
“If the teacher is not empowered to do this properly, there is a risk that learners could be left behind without anyone noticing.”
The Telkom Foundation says access to technology is certainly helpful, but it does not replace the need for face-to-face interaction in the classroom. It found that despite access to online learning, the circumstances at home made it difficult for some to part-take in live lessons.
“Some learners do not have the luxury of a corner to work from; they have to wait for everyone to be asleep to log on. This is why the ability to catch up on recorded lessons was of importance to many learners,” Mthintso said.