“If there’s one thing 2020 taught us, it’s to be wary of planning too far ahead,” says Philippa Brinkmann, head of learning support at Rustenburg Girls Junior School in Cape Town. It’s a worrying wrinkle in what should be a time of excitement and anticipation, as children prepare for the 2021 academic year – now starting in February, due to Covid-19-linked postponements.
“Buy only what’s absolutely essential for getting through the first term of 2021,” says Brinkmann, who’s also mother to a 12-year-old schoolgoer. For example, she says, don’t invest in sports clothing and equipment at the moment – schools may not be allowed to offer their usual extramural activities, and kids may grow out of their sports clothing before they even get a chance to use it.
Among essentials that parents and caregivers should buy are school uniforms – but, Brinkmann advises, buy only for the summer season, as there’s too much uncertainty around whether a third wave of Covid-19 infections will occur during winter, in which case schools may close.
A device and access to data are also essential: in the brave new world on online learning, the need for technology is becoming a reality for a growing number of South Africans. Hayley Friend, a teacher at Camps Bay Primary in Cape Town, agrees that a basic level of reliable, user-friendly technology is needed to keep up with distance-learning. “Fast wifi at home is ideal, and perhaps a tablet or smartphone of their own,” she says. Access to a printer comes in handy, she adds, as tangible notes are more engaging and therefore more memorable.
Access to affordable data is a South African problem – even in affluent areas, Friend notes. “Many of our kids come from areas outside that aren’t as well resourced, so things like access to affordable data remains a challenge for many families.” Brinkmann acknowledges that for many families, finding the money to buy this can be difficult, and she encourages parents/caregivers to reach out to their schools for help. “Teaching staff can’t know the difficulties families face if they aren’t told about them, and schools may have contingency plans to help in situations like these.”
Last year’s State of the ICT Sector report put smartphone penetration at 91,2% in 2019, up from 81,7% in 2018. TECNO, ranked Africa’s number-one smartphone brand by the IDC Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Track 2020 Q1-Q3, recently launched their SPARK 5 series in South Africa. The TECNO, Pouvoir 4 and CAMON 15Air phones are ideal for distance learning, with a good screen size, camera capabilities and excellent battery life. All phones come bundled with 32GB SD card and TECNO Hipods earphones.
The Tomorrow Trust, a Joburg non-profit organisation part-funded by the Datatec Education and Technology Foundation, which supports orphaned and vulnerable children throughout their educational journey, supplies smartphones and data (where relevant) to a thousand children between the ages of 5 and 18 in Gauteng townships like Alexandra, Soweto, Tembisa, Daveyton and Diepsloot, as well as Nange and Gugulethu in the Western Cape. The Trust setup WhatsApp groups moderated by teachers for their learners to get extracurricular support, as well as for their senior learners to participate in online webinars focused on career development but also to nurture socioemotional skills.
“An area often neglected is the right emotional support kids should be getting during these extraordinary times,” says Reabetsoe Buys, who heads up the youth development programme at the Tomorrow Trust. To this end, Buys advises that parents/caregivers a structure and a routine for the day for their kids, ensuring that there’s a set time dedicated to learning; engaging in fun activities as well, such as experiments, art and hands-on activities, to ensure the engagement of the creative as well as the logical brain; and recapping at the end of the day, which is helpful for parents to check in with their children and see if they’re on track, and also to encourage them to ask questions.
More practically, “A designated study area that’s undisturbed and quiet, along with solid routine, really improves the home-learning experience,” notes Friend. Mini whiteboards with markers also help, as kids can write up tasks, make mistakes, wipe them off, and start again. Friend adds that regular breaks are vital. “I always recommend to my kids to study for 20-30 minutes max, and then allow for a 10-minute break,” says Friend. A mini-trampoline in the yard, a skipping rope or a punching bag can get kids up and moving. “And don’t assume that they can’t learn while moving and having fun — they definitely can,” she says.
The pandemic has had an anguishing effect on South Africa, with well over a million infections and almost 40 000 deaths, plus record high unemployment of 30.8% in the third quarter of last year. Parents, caregivers and children are all under massive emotional pressure, and need the right attitude and a flexible spirit to face what lies ahead. “I don’t say this lightly, but stock up with plenty of enthusiasm for school this year, and all the challenges it will bring, whether it’s at the dining-room table or back in the classroom,” says Brinkmann. “Our children learn how to deal with tough situations by watching how the adults around them do so.”