Back to school: Getting our funding (and other) priorities right

Agility. Creativity. Empathy. Every school will have unique circumstances and challenges. While immediate sanitation, PPE and so on are an important support for schools, it is only the first step of many.

The Department of Basic Education has announced that there will be a phased-in return to school in South Africa, starting with Grades 12 and 7, from 1 June 2020. A lot of planning went into this decision. There is very little available scientific data to draw on in terms of the virus and its real spread, which makes modelling ambiguous and unreliable at best and complete speculative guesswork at worst.

There are a number of priorities that need to be balanced against each other, such as the need to maintain the academic year as well as keep children in schools so that their caregivers can be at work. In certain schools, there is a need to maintain nutrition programmes because children are genuinely starving and facing malnutrition, even prior to Covid-19. These competing priorities create a minefield that is impossible to navigate without stepping on at least some of the mines. 

To open schools now or later?

The greatest debate is about when do schools reopen. Broadly speaking, there are three main camps (these camps apply to learners, parents, teachers, department officials and the general public alike). In one camp, there are those that have accepted Covid-19 is here to stay, pointing out that children are in a low-risk demographic for infection and schools are probably not huge vectors of spread. While the science is not yet definitive, there are merits to this argument and a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that it could well be true. In the second camp, people are unsure when schools should reopen, but are fairly certain that 1 June is too soon. This camp is fearful of children and schools becoming vectors of viral spread. The third camp is the group of people that argue for the scrapping of the entire academic year, with a plan to “catch up” in subsequent years.

Pragmatically, the loss of the academic year cannot happen. Simply stated, South Africa does not have enough schools or teachers to handle an influx of learners into the system next year without having a similar-sized exit. In addition, many South African schools struggle to cover the curriculum in a normal year – to try to “double up” through a catch-up year would be problematic at best.

Ultimately though, all three camps will be found in all school settings.  

Building the complexity

Behind the debate on when schools should reopen are a lot of subterranean issues that add volatility to the already complex situation.

Foremost, parents and caregivers are concerned about the health of learners. The evidence seems to indicate loosely that the health risks of Covid-19 to younger populations are very low, except for those with pre-existing conditions. This obviously does little to allay the fears of parents who are being bombarded with contradictory messaging and who – sensibly – would opt to rather think in the safest “worst-case” scenarios.

Compounding this is the secondary fear that children and schools will become vectors of virus spread. Here the science seems to be even more uncertain. The question of whether or not schools reopening will have a significant impact on the rate of spread of the virus remains unanswered. There are numerous substantial arguments that are being made here; primarily that many learners are in the care of elderly people, and if they do become spreaders of the virus, they will transmit it to vulnerable people. However, the questions of the risk of schools being open must also be weighed against the harsh reality that many of the caregivers are still having to potentially expose themselves to the virus through marketplaces, standing in queues to access income support and other social services, trying to find part-time employment and so on.  

Adding to the flames

Beyond the obvious complexities discussed, there is also the media component. Covid-19 is on everyone’s mind and all forms of media – especially social media – are serving up copious amounts of content. The science is unclear, but that does not stem the flow of opinions and thoughts. Irrespective of the appetite you have, the media is there to meet your requirements. People are being bombarded with content ranging from the fringe ludicrous to the dramatised “Armageddon” theories, and everything in between.

This onslaught of opinions, science, pseudo-science, healthy critique, grotesque name-calling, American political point-scoring (it is an election year over there and that tends to permeate all media globally), disinformation, misinformation, AI-produced content, well-thought-out analysis and the downright stupid, all culminate in a very confused – and polarised – public. That, on top of real complexity, is an explosion waiting to happen, and schools are one of the large battlegrounds where we will see this playing out. 

So, what do schools do?

Thankfully, the Department of Basic Education has developed (and continues to do so) guidelines that seek to manage the risks as best as we know how with the current information. These guidelines are heavy with details pertaining to the immediate health risks, and include measures around social distancing, personal protective equipment requirements, and sanitation etc. They are “light” (and for good reason – because we do not have a set precedent) on some of the more psycho-social elements that should be seeking to calm an anxious group of learners unable to make sense of a rapidly changing environment.

In theory, this should help guide schools through this upcoming minefield. Schools can follow procedures and guidelines and communicate to learners and caregivers what is required; this can redirect some of the angst the public feels about schools to a larger central body that is “setting the rules”. But even doing this has its limits; government, as a single entity (which it is not), started its Covid-19 response on a tide of social goodwill. A lot of this momentum has dissipated through heavy-handed tactics, back-tracking on key decisions, incongruent messaging and potential constitutional infringements (depending on interpretation), and so the public may not be satisfied with a school deferring some of its decision-making to the department.

Ultimately though, schools will reopen as per the guidelines set by the department.  

And then what?

Once a school successfully navigates reopening, that is when even more difficulty arises. In trying to appease its immediate public and balance the opposing priorities of most stakeholders, the internal stakeholders of the school – the learners and the teachers – may be most severely impacted. Expect teachers to receive far more complaints than before, and to be inundated with messaging from concerned (and well-intentioned) parents who are seeking the best for their children. Expect learners to feel some of the brunt of this outside complexity through increased punitive actions and dictates from the school.

Things such as “detentions for hugging” and the internal policing of the wearing of masks and so on will have a tremendous impact on learners and may well infringe on their constitutional rights. In short, expect increased conflict within the school environment that will further hamper effective learning and teaching.

What does this mean for funders in education?

Agility. Creativity. Empathy. Every school is going to have unique circumstances and challenges. While immediate sanitation, PPE and so on are important support for schools, it is only the first step of many.

Funders must seek to be agile in that different schools are going to have different requirements; a blanket approach to schools is just not going to cut it. Funders must work with schools directly to understand the most pressing needs and adapt strategies as necessary; this may be digital interventions in some cases, nutritional support elsewhere and psychological interventions to teaching staff or learners (to name just a few).

Funders also need to be creative. Financial support is straightforward, but not always the most pressing need. Are there other strategies that funders may use to assist schools? Could a funder potentially negotiate with its workplace wellness service provider to extend services to teachers? Could a funder crowd in local businesses to help support a school with technology or even something as simple as team building? Can a large corporate funder assist a school’s governing body with the development of caring people-centric Covid-19 policies and procedures?

And finally, funders must be empathetic to the school. The pressures that are placed on the schools are going to be tremendous – schools can ill-afford to be burdened by programmes that would place additional burdens on their operations, as shiny as those programmes may look. Funders must be critically aware of placing any further burdens on schools, especially on teachers and learners. 

Before developing wonderful educational solutions, funders must consult with schools and map out the most pressing needs, or at least ensure that programmes are not burdensome. DM

Riyaadh Ebrahim is a social investment specialist at Tshikululu Social Investments.