Hunger and social problems, both results of the Covid-19 lockdown and months out of school, are among the concerns of primary school principals in Makhanda. GMDirect reports from some of these on the first day of term, Monday 15 February 2021.
‘They must see it in your eyes’
Good Shepherd Primary
“In my 36 years of teaching, this is the first time I have felt so emotional.”
Manie Cronje, Principal of Good Shepherd Primary School, said it was heartbreaking seeing parents having to leave their children at the school gate on their first day of school.
“You know how it usually is – the moms and dads like to help their children settle into the classroom and take that special first-day photo,” Cronje said.
Strict Covid regulations at schools in year 2 of the pandemic – the first school year to begin under its cloud – mean only staff and learners are allowed on to the premises. So teachers were the ones comforting little ones stepping tentatively into a classroom for the first time.
Schools were meant to have opened on 27 January and this was delayed because of concerns about the second wave of Covid-19 and the new, more contageous variant of the virus.
That did ensure, though, that schools and the Education Department had more time to prepare and Makhanda schools had almost everything they needed as they welcomed learners on a rainy Monday 15 February.
Workbooks and textbooks were there, with a top-up coming to cover additional admissions. Transport – including for children from farming areas – was in place. And – most important for many young learners – catering staff were cooking and serving school meals.
In the Grade 1 classroom at Good Shepherd, children were receiving a bowl of porridge to start their day.
“The delayed start was frustrating because we wanted to get going with the school year, but it did give us the chance to prepare our classrooms really well,” Cronje said.
Cronje says they’re especially grateful to the Good Shepherd Trust for their good facilities and the space to accommodate the school’s 310 learners.
“We are completely full,” Cronje said. “From Grade R to Grade 7 we really don’t have a single space.”
“It’s not easy working like this,” said Cronje. “Wearing masks, distancing – these are all so difficult for the little ones. And many of them have experienced tragedy and hardship at home. They’ve lost relatives because of Covid, their parents have lost their jobs.”
Especially tough was watching the Grade 1s have to say goodbye to their parents at the school gate.
“But as teachers we have to be positive. We know we will get through this and we have to reassure the children we will get through this. They must see it in your eyes – with your mask on – that it’s going to be all right.
Need for a proper meal
“I am so worried about these children,” said Makana Primary Principal Nkhosi Williams. “So many of the families these children come from have been without work – some right since the start of the pandemic – and their need for a proper meal every day has become even mpre urgent.
In addition to the hunger as a result of increased unemployment, there were social problems to deal with.
“Some of these children only went back to school in August last year,” Williams said. “They were there for three months and then it was the holidays.
“I live in the township myself and I see how the children have been spending their time on the street with no supervision and no routine for months and months.”
He thinks children are going to struggle to readjust to the learning environment.
Nationally, there is a huge number of learners entering Grade 1 and Grade 8 and that’s true in Makhanda too.
“Actually it’s not just Grade 1,” Williams said. “It’s across all the grades.”
Williams said many children were doing Grade 1 for the second time because parents fearful of the pandemic had kept them at home even when their peers returned to classrooms.
At Makana Primary, each grade from R to 7 has two classes. The school has 14 teachers for its 550 learners – around half the number it needs and so teaching assistants are having to fill in the gaps until teachers are redeployed.
The children are coming in two shifts – half on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; half on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with groups alternating the weekly schedule.
“Well at least the delay gave us enough chance to plan,” Williams said.
Unlike last year, when the Education Department procured and supplied PPEs, this year every school is responsible for ordering these from its own budget.
“Because so many children just didn’t come back to school at all last year, we had a lot of masks and sanitiser left over, so we had enough to give our learners,” Williams said.
Williams’s biggest concern is that the children’s environment has been so unstable for so long.
“That’s why I’ve pleaded with parents to keep with our routines and ensure their own at home,” Williams said.
‘Children’s lives have changed’
CM Vellem Primary
Also in Joza, just a few streets west, is CM Vellem Primary.
“Hectic,” said Principal Khululikhaya Mfecane. “Really hectic”
Like Makana Primary down the road, many learners missed out on school altogether last year, with parents either fearful or unable to get them to the school gates. Already they had 92 Grade 1s as they had to reaccommodate those left behind last year.
With 830 learners and 23 teachers, there was no way they could accommodate any more.
“Maybe I like work,” said Mfecane. “So I am positive. But we can’t run away from the fact that we are still afraid of the virus. Teachers are eager, but there is a fear of the unknown.”
After the long break and the catastrophic effect of the lockdown on so many livelihoods, Mfecane is expecting many social issues to play out inside and outside the classrooms.
“Many parents are no longer working because the businesses they worked for have closed down, and so the children’s lives are different.
Patience is the key
Grahamstown Primary had a slow start on Monday, with a number of learners absent because of the rainy weather. Although numbers picked up during the week, Principal Leon Coetzee said the school generally has fewer learners this year.
‘But there are several pending applications, especially for Grade R,” he told GMDirect.
For the second year running, a set of prefab buildings on the grounds of neighbour, George Dickerson Primary, will accommodate Grahamstown Primary’s learners.
After years of negotiations, the school was looking forward to a substantial upgrade and expansion by the Department of Basic Education (DBE). Plans included the installation of a media centre and library. The R55-million upgrade plans stalled in August 2019 when the contractors left the site because they hadn’t been paid by the department and vandals struck.
“We’ve heard nothing,” Coetzee, who will retire at the end of this year, told GMDirect.
This year they have 297 learners and 10 or 11 teachers. One has retired and they have a permanent post to fill. The school also has 13 Education Assistants, deployed under the President’s Basic Education Employment Initiative (BEEI).
“They are very helpful, I must say,” Coetzee said. “Some of them have just completed degrees and diplomas and are very skilled and knowledgeable. All of them have a really good attitude.”
Coetzee says their main challenge is to catch up what the learners lost last year.
“Yet we can’t rush through the syllabus just to finish it: it’s no use if the kids haven’t grasped the basics.”
Patience will be the key to 2021.
“We need to be patient with each other, and with the learners,” he said.
Corrective teaching will be important for children who missed out on important concept learning last year.
The school’s staff have had to re-emphasise all over again the importance of Covid precautions.
“It seems like they forgot all about hand-washing, masks and social distancing during the holidays,” Coetzee said.
Children are definitely struggling socially.
“There have been so many disruptions,” Coetzee said. “Many families have relocated. Taxis may not travel from their new area to the school and so we need to negotiate with the drivers.
“If we manage all these things – and I believe we can – we can make this year work.”
St Mary’s Primary
St Mary’s Primary has seen a significant drop in applications received for 2021.
“This may be attributed to the lockdown measures,” said Principal Gerard Jacobs.
Most parents who have applied for learners to be enrolled in Grade 1 English Home Language classes have been accepted; however, the Grade 1 Afrikaans Home Language class has seen a significant drop in numbers compared to 2020. In 2021, the school will have 734 learners and 25 teachers, from Grade R to Grade 7..
St Mary’s has experienced no Covid-19 fatalities although two teachers and one learner tested positive for Covid-19 in 2020.
“Our hope is that our staff and learners will be safe from the Coronavirus for the whole year,” Jacobs said. “ We try to adhere to all protocols as best we can.”
The main challenge for St Mary’s will be to source funding to buy PPEs for the remainder of the year.
“We have procured masks for all our learners from the funds currently available in the school,” Jacobs said.
They were funds were earmarked for other projects, such as the upgrading of the school grounds and buildings.
“These projects now have to be put on hold indefinitely,” Jacobs said. “We plan to engage our parents through non-contact fundraising events eg. appeals for voluntary contributions/ raffles/civvies days/ etc.”
The school’s advice to parents is to ensure their children observe ovid-19 protocols at all times.
“ Wear your masks at all times; wash your hands regularly with soap and water; keep your social distance of 1.5m; report all flu-like symptoms immediately to a health care worker; keep your child at home if he/she feels sick and inform the school immediately.”
“We also would like to encourage parents not to panic and/or spread/believe fake news regarding the Covid-19 pandemic,” Jacobs said. “Parents are also urged to consent to having themselves and their children vaccinated against the Coronavirus as soon as the vaccine becomes available.”
Walking on quicksand
Tantyi Primary had 192 learners by midweek and expects more applications over the next 10 days. They have seven teachers.
Unlike the Joza schools, Tantyi Primary did not have an unusually high number of applications for Grade 1.
“We expected between 25 and 30, and have 27 on the system,” said Principal Priscilla Glover.
The biggest challenge in 2021, unsurprisingly, comes from Covid.
“We need to deliver meaningful education to all our learners in spite of Covid, while understanding that it isn’t possible in the usual ways.,” Glover said. “We are still not sure what to expect with Covid, so we are hoping to manage everything, while walking on quicksand.
“I find it impossible to have big dreams and plans in this context.”
Like Grahamstown Primary, Tantyi has found the Education Department’s deployment of Education Assistants very helpful.
“The fact that we have more hands on deck, means that we can have more learners at school every day safely.”
The school’s advice to parents for 2021 is:
* Keep your families safe from Covid, by following the government guidelines.
* Have the vaccine when it is available.
* Do send your children to school.