#YouthMonth Back to School: Insights from Learners on Education during COVID-19

This is an unprecedented Youth Week in South Africa as it also coincides with the second week that some learners have been back at school since March and the state of National Disaster and Lockdown were announced. With all that has been written about youth and schools being opened, very little has been written on the insights and perspectives of the largest stakeholder group in the education system – the learners themselves. In this article we share insights from learners gathered in a series of Whatsapp Live Chats discussing Education Solutions.

There has been extensive reporting on the return to school after COVID-19 covering important discussions about the systems failures that led to delays, challenges with meeting the demands of teacher unions, school governing boards, parents and the general public. We appreciate that the Department of Education at National and Provincial leaders are following international guidelines and best practice, such as UNESCO’s Framework for Reopening Schools

However, there appears to be comparatively little written on the insights and perspectives of the largest group of stakeholders of the education system – the learners themselves. In April, when the first potential revised academic calendar was released, we took time to find out the perspective of learners in our leadership programs in Whatsapp Live Chats focused on education solutions. In our work, we are focused on putting youth at the centre and our philosophy is that young people are often the hidden experts in solving the issues that directly affect them.

Engaging learners to be part of creating solutions and leading their peers to make the right decisions to combat COVID-19’s potential spread in schools. Doing so will harness one of the greatest potential strengths within the education system and, most significantly make sure that the children (and their communities) can be alright.

The main purpose of the Education & Covid-19 Solutions Lab was to provide a platform for the young leaders in enke’s Programs to come up with ideas and solutions for the challenges facing policy makers regarding the reopening of schools during the Covid-19 pandemic. The participants were encouraged to express ideas to show how they (learners) can make a difference on real issues. The insights from the learners show the following: 

  1. Learners know and are more capable than most adults assume. One of the dominant narratives is that learners, once back at school, will run rampant and not follow the COVID-19 instructions. This grossly underestimates learners’ awareness about the disease and desire to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy.
  2. It is possible to engage and include learners who are appointed leaders (by their peers or the school system) as part of the effort to maintain and sustain the COVID-19 regulations for schools to continue.
  3. Learners are deeply concerned about their future and the impact of the pandemic on their prospects for their post-school opportunities.
  4. Learners have been creative and adapted to the situation; they are continuing with their studies using the tools and resources provided to them, but those with fewer resources and the space and support to continue with their studies at home find it difficult. 
  5. Skills in personal mastery, leadership and enterpreneurial mindset help ground learners to create solutions. It is notable that learners in our Education Solutions Lab are participants in enke’s leadership training which includes personal mastery and entrepreneurial skills. This may mean that they are better primed and able to see and engage with being part of creating solutions. Imagine if there were more youth in schools equipped with these skills.  

It is justifiable to be worried about the return to schools, it is not without its health risks. However, engaging learners to be part of creating solutions and leading their peers to make the right decisions to combat COVID-19’s potential spread in schools. Doing so will harness one of the greatest potential strengths within the education system and, most significantly make sure that the children will be alright. 

Youth Insights from the Education Solutions Lab

The Education Solutions Lab was held via Whatsapp. We split the Solutions Lab Discussions in 2 groups – Lab T (consisting of 40 learners participating in the enke: Trailblazer Program which has a national spread) and Lab Y (consisting of 32 learners in the YANDISA Program from 4 schools in Gauteng East). Learners in each Lab had 20 minutes with each question with 5 minutes to break down and understand the question, 10 minutes to share and discuss solutions and 5 minutes to collectively choose the best/ideal solution from the proposals and discussions. 

Here is a summary of insights from the discussions:

Image of Complete Question 1: Learning at home?  We are all really hoping that the end of the lockdown is fast approaching, and that we will return to “normal”. If it happens that this does not happen, and that “normal” was further away than what we had hoped for, what ideas do you have for learning outside of school?

Question 1: Learning at home? Selected Best Solutions from Discussion: 

  • Distance and online learning in its various forms such as YouTube and WhatsApp, together with learning channels on TV and radio was considered the best solution for continued learning outside of the school environment. 
  • The government needs to find a solution to provide better access to free internet and data and provide extra free learning in the form of television programs and radio tutoring. This in turn will assist the parents of learners, as many are not fully educated themselves, or cannot provide the internet/data requirements for the learners to achieve their best, especially in the rural areas.

Engage in Group Studies:  Government should provide persons in protective gear to assist learners in groups in the school environment, especially for those learners that are slow and struggling.  Those learners that have access to the internet could assist those that don’t have by inviting them to study groups. Parents of learners also need help in assisting their children. Not all parents have higher education and/or cannot provide internet/data requirements.

We need government to help with providing:  Free wi-fi/data for every learner, so that every learner has access to free internet. (One suggestion was to make use of the free wi-fi available at clinics.)  Provide more learning channels on TV. Use radio for tutoring of learners. (Suggestions were for using local/community radio stations) Another suggestion was made for learners to obtain a Vodacom sim card, as Vodacom is offering a data free learning institution. Participants were made mindful of the fact that rural learners very often do not have access to internet.
Tips for Learners’ Self-study:   Draft a self-study timetable for each of your subjects.Contact friends & teachers when you’re struggling with work.Join study groups, making sure subjects don’t clash timewise, so that learners can show each other support and encouragement.

Online study:   Online learning needs to be free to all learners, as not everyone has free access to internet and data. YouTube tutoring was a suggestion well received as a possibility for online study, as it is visual, informative and could allow for all subjects to be covered. WhatsApp groups for each subject as has been done recently at a lot of schools should continue. Difficulties would be that not all learners, especially in the rural areas, have access to internet.  Here it was suggested that use be made of the learning channels on SABC and DSTV, as well as more tutoring on radio channels. Some mobile operators have an app for helping learners with their studies, namely e-school, which also provides past exam papers and solutions for grades 10 to 12.

Image with complete Question 2: Cancel 2020?  - Leaders think of solutions to challenges that a lot of people did not see coming. If the education department had to cancel the rest of the 2020 academic year, why would they do so?  What challenges / issues do think this might cause, and how can we solve those challenges?

Question 2: Cancel 2020? Selected Best Solutions from Discussion: 

  • Lab Y = Overall learners felt that cancelling the 2020 school year was not feasible for most and that rather solutions needed to be found to continue and complete the school year safely. Although it was largely considered governments responsibility to provide protective gear for learners and staff, it was also realized that it was up to the individual to help provide protection for themselves. Social distancing could be further assisted by having school classes in two sittings, in the morning and afternoon for example. Using other venues such as churches and community halls would also help with creating smaller classes. Lastly, using off-campus learning through TV and radio would assist complete curriculums while staying at home and staying safe.
  • Lab T = Learners concluded that being proactive was part of the solution if the 2020 school year was cancelled.  Using the time until the new school year begins in 2021 to study in groups, use TV and radio to keep up with subjects, find a job to earn money for university if in Matric, learn new skills  and volunteering would still contribute to 2020 having been a productive year for learners.
Participants in this group felt that cancelling the 2020 academic year was not a good idea as many could not necessarily afford to repeat a year.  Some learners would now be considered too old for their grades to enable them to repeat a year. It was generally felt that rather than cancel the school year, put measures in place to enable learners to complete the academic year. Measures suggested by learners included the following:
–> The department could provide free masks, sanitizers, gloves, and any other protective gear necessary for learners and teachers alike, so that the school year could be completed safely.
–> Social distancing would be a must, possibly also police/army to assist monitoring this at schools.
–> Extra venues such as church halls and community halls, as well as having two sessions of learning per day at schools, should be organized so that learners can still complete the academic year. Extra teachers may need to be employed to achieve this. 
–> Other forms of teaching such as extra tutoring on the radio could assist with completing the school year
The participants of this group found the concept of cancelling the 2020 school year worrying. The concerns expressed included:
–> The cost for parents if a learner had to repeat the school year.
–> Concerns for the safety of the school premises and school property due to vandalism – would there be the necessary equipment available next year, if this year were cancelled?
–> Cost to schools and the government would be high if the 2020 school year would have to be repeated.
–> Learners would likely be affected socially and economically with the close of schools – turning to drugs, enduring physical abuse at home, and teachers not being paid and their families suffering.

In general, participants were agreed that a return to school would be necessary, but they were concerned with the level of education that would occur if the 2020 school year with a shorter school year and if not all curriculum could be covered.

Question 3: How to Stay on Track? Here are the selected Best Solutions from the discussion:

  • Lab Y = The main solution is to realise that it is possible to continue studies regardless of the pandemic with emphasis on teamwork and support. Share information between learners, invite others into study groups – working together to get through the crises. 
  • Lab T = The group felt that self-motivation is key to remaining on track for the 2020 school year. With motivation, a positive attitude and careful study planning you can still achieve your goals and complete your studies for the year.

Participants in the group described the following as ways they are staying on track with school:
–> Self motivation – find a reason to study and that will keep you focused and on track.
–> Practicing good time management allows you to track what you have done and what still needs to be done.
–> Creating a timetable for a study plan.
–> Finding a quiet place to study.Using exam guidelines in textbooks.
–> Watch videos on Mindset online, although not all subjects are covered.
–> Ask older siblings to assist you with work.
–> Use last year exam papers.
–> Participate in educational group chats on WhatsApp.

Participants in the group described the following as ways they are staying on track with school:
–> Take responsibility for your studying, find a study method that works for you – not everybody focuses in the same way.
–> Create goals and a realistic study timetable for yourself. Give someone else the timetable so you are being checked whether you’re keeping up with your plans and get positive feedback.
–> Even if finding a quiet time to study is difficult, think out of the box and study in the early hours of the morning when other people are sleeping.
–> Find other ways to assist you with learning – radio tutoring, TV learning channels, WhatsApp learning groups, and even apps that turn off your cell phone during your study time, so you’re not disturbed or distracted.
–> Motivate yourself with positive quotes from famous people and get support from teachers when you’re struggling.

Complete Question 4: Keeping us healthy.  Most of us know the virus is spread, getting in contact with droplets from someone with the virus areas by touching surfaces they have touched or standing close to them.  When we go back to school, how do we make sure that we don’t put ourselves, families and communities at risk of being infected?  (consider how we use various forms of travel, sharing a classroom space, schools without good sanitation etc).

Question 4: How might we keep healthy if we return to school? Selected Best Solutions: 

  • Lab Y = It was important to remember that as leaders, the government should not always be relied on to think and plan for us. It is possible to have a multi-faceted approach to solving the problem of studying while still combatting the pandemic and the need for social distancing. Using social media, TV and radio, smaller class groups at school – all assist with social distancing. Homemade masks assist with the wearing of protective gear.
  • Lab T = This group felt that if all the regular measures such as mask wearing, sanitizing and washing of hands took place, together with social distancing in the form of smaller classes and less persons at a time on vehicles, it should be sufficient to prevent further spread of the virus and keep learners safe.
Learners in this group discussed their understanding of protective measures and social distancing, and how to apply these in the school workspace:
–> Most learners were aware that protective measures such as washing hands, using sanitizer, wearing masks and gloves help protect everyone against the virus as well as the spread of the virus.
–> Responsible social distancing and protective wear measures show leadership in the community and at schools.
–> Learners agreed that there needs to be better social distancing at schools. Fewer learners per class, more classes to make up for less learners per class, classes on a shift like basis. Maybe one session of classes in the morning, another in the afternoon.
–> Consensus is that the academic year can be salvaged by increasing academic hours in a staggered way, making use of weekend and public holiday hours, cancelling school holidays, and keeping schools open later in December than usual.
–> The issue of social distancing while trying to transport to school was discussed.  Fewer persons per taxi would work, but this would probably be too expensive for most.  Government and private sector sponsoring buses with restricted persons per bus could be an option, but only if the government could provide, or provide at very restricted cost.
The group discussed the various measures possible in using protective wear and social distancing at school, as well as the transport to and from school:
–> Schools to provide sanitizer at school gates and in each classroom.
–> Masks for all learners and teachers.Avoid being too close together, touching people and hugs.Wash hands regularly.
–> School premises and equipment to be sanitized regularly.
–> Limit the number of learners in a class at any one time. Have more than 1 session per day of classes.
–> All persons in a transport vehicle to school must wear a mask. Also apply sanitizer before entering the vehicle.
–> Limit the number of people in the transport vehicle.
–> A learner raised the issue of the cost of the masks and sanitizer – where would this come from?

As the other grades wait to find out when they can return to school, we urge that we continue to support those still at home to participate in remote learning options over radio, television and provisions being made by schools and after-school programs. It is clear from the Education Solutions Labs that meaningful consultation with learners, equipped with leadership and solution-creation skills, can (and do) provide incredible insights. We hope that by showing this and continuing the work of equipping youth with entrepreneurial mindsets, we will be able to have a greater appreciation of the untapped resource that is our youth. If we engage meaningfully, and not tokenistically, with learners (youth) and hear their suggestions and solutions, we will be able to make sure that the whole school community will be alright through and beyond this time of COVID-19.


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