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Can We Really Celebrate Youth Day During Covid-19?

A Look at the Education Crisis in South Africa

Claudine Ribeiro - JPCCC Director


The 16th June 2020 will certainly be one of the strangest and in fact most worrying Youth Days experienced in South Africa’s young democracy.

The onset of the COVID 19 Pandemic has placed our youth in an oddly vulnerable and challenging position. And this is not because they are vulnerable to the pandemic itself - they have youth on their side to protect them from the illness, as the disease is known to have low numbers in the youth and adolescent age groups. Their vulnerability has been in their inability to access education during lockdown. What the pandemic has shown in South Africa, despite all good intentions, is that it is a country still plagued with inequality in education. With the onset of the pandemic, there has been no place to hide these glaring differences.

Many of the more affluent private and ex-model C schools have continued to educate their learners using online platforms. Their main worry - “How fast is my internet?”. At the risk of generalising, many of these schools have been able to keep their lessons going, support their learners, and create a secondary (if somewhat impersonal) classroom which can be enjoyed in the comfort of the learners’ homes. Perhaps far from ideal but certainly a fantastic alternative, ensuring that these kids will keep up their education and manage to pass the year. Their main loss will be perhaps a matric dance, maybe not playing first team rugby, or getting to go on a Sports tour. There is no question that these are devastating for all those who have worked so hard for these treasured school traditions. In addition, mental health support has also been made available to these learners to assist them with their own difficulties and concerns at this time.

However, let us consider the majority of schools in SA. A very different picture, with more severe losses, can be painted. This scenario involves a wide variety of children from various backgrounds and communities who simply have no access to the internet, and even if they did, have no substantial devices to assist them to do online learning. The facilities at their schools are vastly under-resourced, so that with the best will in the world, being able to work online and continue the year without the physical classroom is nothing more than a pipe dream. These learners’ schooling literally came to a complete halt. As a result, learners also no longer had access to the support and encouragement of their teachers at their schools. In the absence of mental health support in schools, educators play a vital role in supporting, uplifting and encouraging learners.

School has now re-convened, but will this be enough? Will these learners simply move on to the next year, without some of the vital building blocks in place. Bear in mind that many of these learners have less resources in their schools, and their challenges are enourmous in the first place. The 2020 Covid year is going to challenge a system that is already at breaking point.

What are some of the challenges at our schools?

There is the absence of running water and good sanitation to ensure that learners can follow the required measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Returning to school is even more challenging. Today in Gauteng alone, 54 schools were closed again just 5 days after opening, due to virus outbreaks. This begs the question of whether our schools are in any way ready to cope with preventing the spread of COVID.

There is a lack of basic facilities, such as climbing frames and jungle gyms, and good, level open and maintained playing fields for exercise and sport; libraries and laboratories, and computer equipment. And whilst these are perhaps not priorities for the emergency times of COVID 19, they are essential facilities required by our schools on an ongoing basis, which would help to level the inequality in education, and ensure a more holistic experience of school by learners.

Another challenge that we are acutely aware of is the lack of mental health services at schools. The provision of these services is way down on the list of priorities at many schools. Whilst we acknowledge that schools have to work hard at the moment just to get basic lesson plans implemented, we are also worried about learners who have suffered a bereavement from COVID, experienced more intense abuse during lockdown, are part of a family that is under pressure due to job losses, or those that hold severe anxieties about the future. At the moment, there is little or no mental health support in our education system, for both educators and learners alike. Mandela said, “Education is the great engine of personal development”. We as a society need to create schools that can help our learners to grow in every possible way.

This is the sad status of “Youth” in South Africa in 2020. Whilst we try to celebrate a youth that is excited for a future that lies before them, let us consider what we as a society are doing to hamper their progress. In 1976, it was the youth who put at risk their future, their rights and their lives to effect change.

It is now our responsibility as a society to ensure quality and equality in the education sector. This includes more schools, more resources in these schools, and the modernisation of basic amenities within these schools. This also includes developing systems that can increasingly cope with challenges such as COVID19. Finally, it also includes accessible mental health support for all learners, in an endeavor to see holistic education being offered across South Africa.

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