The extreme learning challenges of lockdown

Robin Hills Primary School principal, Royston Sanders hands a food parcel to a parent.

The extreme learning challenges of lockdown is something Royston Sanders has never encountered.

He has been in education a long time, 38 years to be exact, but he as never experienced anything like the challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown.

Speaking to STUDENT360, Sanders outlined some of the the extreme learning challenges of lockdown Royston Sanders has ever encountered as principal of Robin Hills Primary School in Randburg, Johannesburg.

These include “absent” parents to lack of data and devices for online teaching.

South African schools closed on Wednesday, March 18 and Sanders admits the subsequent national lockdown, declared on March 26, caught many by surprise.

“It was difficult for my school to implement a plan of action at this point,” Sanders explained. “We were suddenly told that schools were closed in March, and caught off-guard. We didn’t realise at the time that this closing of schools was eventually going to lead to the lockdown.

“This lockdown has been the most frustrating time of my very long, 38-year education career. “This is unprecedented, and we have no frame of reference to refer to.”

He said that his major concern was for the learners who “we are not able to reach out to”.

“We are not a well-resourced school that has the technology to send learning material online, and added to that, our parents do not have sufficient suitable devices or even internet connectivity,” Sanders said.

“The problem with our location is that we are based in a relatively affluent area of Robin Hills in Randburg. We are therefore classified as a Quintile 5 school, which is considered an affluent school,” he said. “However, we do not attract learners from the Robin Hills area, but from the poorer Windsor East and West areas.”

The Education Department allocates finances according to which Quintile a school is located in, and a Quintile 5 school receives comparatively little funding from the government compared to a Quintile 1 school.

According to Sanders, Robin Hills Primary School used to be a well-resourced school, but that was no longer the case.

“Internet connectivity is unaffordable to most of our parents and very few of them have suitable devices, so online home-schooling won’t work for a large section of our school demographic.

“We do have learners from middle-class homes, but it would be unfair to service that group only,” he said.

The school had considered preparing and printing worksheets for learners, but because of lockdown restrictions, staff have not been allowed onto the school property at all up to this point. However, all learners were issued with CAPS syllabus workbooks relevant to their subjects. “I’m hoping that the parents have used their initiative and worked with their children from these books. I did notify parents who have managed to contact me.

“But I feel guilty that we haven’t been able to do more to support our learners during lockdown. We have to work doubly hard to make up for the lost time, if and when we return to school. We really hope that it is going to be sooner rather than later,” he said.

The lockdown, which was necessary to give the country time to prepare for the rise in Covid-19 infections, however, also brought added economic hardship to the school community, including rendering a number of families vulnerable.

“The Society of St Vincent de Paul (St Charles Church Victory Park) reached out to us to supply food parcels to the learners who are part of our school feeding scheme. We feed about 100 kids a day (during the school term).

“We SMSed these parents to come and fetch their food parcels on a designated day. “Unfortunately, only 50% of the parents came. The problem that we have is that some of our parents change their cell numbers often, without notifying us. This is a huge problem when it comes to contacting our parents for emergencies during the school term and we urge them all the time to update contact details.”

Sanders asked organisations and individuals willing to assist, especially the vulnerable children, to continue to support the school as he and his staff sought ways to reach out to the community.

Principal Royston Sanders with learners from Robin Hills Primary School prior to the closure of schools on March 18.