(Op-Ed by Women's Rights Unit)
Youth Day in South Africa commemorates the Soweto youth uprising of 16 June 1976. It is the day that many black students went on a protest rally against an official order which made Afrikaans compulsory in black township schools throughout the country. The day is celebrated in order to recognize the role of the youth in the liberation of South Africa from the Apartheid regime. On this basis, the African Union designated 16 June as the Day of the African Child. This year, Africa on this day commemorates the adoption, 30 years ago, of the AU’s main human rights treaty, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. As we at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, remember the past, we also draw attention to the challenges that the present COVID-19 crisis presents to the youth particularly within educational settings.
This year’s celebrations are different in the sense that education -- which is the very reason inspiring the Soweto uprising -- has been disrupted due to COVID-19. The virus that causes COVID-19 is mainly transmitted through droplets generated when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or exhales. One can be infected by breathing in the virus if they are within close proximity of someone who has COVID-19, or by touching a contaminated surface and then eyes, nose, or mouth. This has led to lockdowns worldwide as a necessary non-pharmaceutical measure against the spread of the virus since cure has not yet been found. As a result, disruptions of education due to the temporary closure of schools in many countries including South Africa have been observed. This paper discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the education of the youth generally and females in particular, as they already face barriers to education caused by poverty, cultural norms and practices, poor infrastructure, violence, and fragility. The Centre for Human Rights in its effective activism to advance human rights in Africa is of the view that every child’s educational needs must be met despite the crisis that the world is facing due to the pandemic. This means that there is a need to put in place measures to curtail losses that were brought to the educational sector equally for every young person.
There is general consensus internationally that the right to education is a justiciable human right. By this, it is meant that all people ought to have access to education and training and should be able to enforce this right. It has also been argued that the importance of access to education as a human right is that it provides people with the capabilities for survival and individual freedom. Access to education is a human right necessary for human development, freedom, and survival. Article 26(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has a right to education. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, to which South Africa is a state party, contains an elaborate provision on the right to education, stipulating among others that states must take special measures in respect of female, gifted and disadvantaged children, to ensure equal access to education for all sections of the community. Also, the South African Constitutional provision in regard to education notes that the state must take reasonable measures to make it progressively available and accessible. This, therefore, means that even in case of pandemics the state must find ways to make education accessible to all students equally.
Education has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with 1.53 billion learners out of school and 184 countrywide school closures including South Africa, impacting 87.6% of the world’s total enrolled learners. It is reported that over 1.6 billion learners across the world are currently compelled to stay out of schools as social distancing is being enforced locally, regionally and around the world in order to contain the spread of Coronavirus disease. Social distancing is crucial for preventing the spread of contagious illnesses by minimizing the amount of close contact with others, chances of catching the virus and spreading it to others is reduced. According to the UNESCO report, 2020 lockdown of schools is more prominent in some continents such as Africa, South America, and in some parts of Europe. Africa and South America are the continents which educational systems have been mostly affected by the pandemic as more than 98% of teaching and learning cannot be conducted due to country-wide lockdown in these continents. Social distancing has been the most effective way of minimising the spread of COVID-19. The effective implementation of social distancing demands that schools be closed for as long as each government is certain that the pandemic has been curtailed enough for the safety of learners and teachers.
In South Africa, all schools were closed on 18 March 2020 as part of lockdown measures designed to curb the pandemic. A gradual plan to open schools was announced at the end of May 2020. The announcement brought home the fact that many schools are not in a condition to welcome pupils back in a way that ensures their health and safety. This means that many students cannot return to their classrooms, which can result in both temporary and permanent damage on the educational system. The temporary damage includes disruption of the curriculum which could take a long time to be recovered while the permanent damage includes the fact that some learners especially young girls and women may never return to school even when the disease outbreak is ended.
It is envisaged that the education of an African girl child would be the most affected post-COVID-19 era due to the economic and technological backwardness of most African countries. According to UNESCO estimates, 130 million girls between the age of 6 and 17 are out of school and 15 million girls of primary school age half of them in sub-Saharan Africa will never enter a classroom. Poverty remains the most important factor for determining whether a girl can access education and COVID-19 is worsening the rate of poverty in Africa meaning more young girls ‘education will be affected. COVID-19 additionally forced 743 million girls out of school in 185 countries, which means that rising drop-out rates will disproportionately affect adolescent girls. This is because parents living in poverty are also likely to be poorly educated and thus less able to support their children’s educational development especially female children. This will only exacerbate gender gaps in education and lead to increased risk of sexual exploitation, early and unintended pregnancy, and child, early and forced marriage.
Young and adolescent girls are twice as likely to be out of school in crisis situations and face greater barriers to education and vulnerabilities such as domestic/gender-based violence when not in school. Violence against women tends to increase during every type of emergency, including epidemics. Also, the disruption of social and protective networks and decreased access to services can all exacerbate the risk of violence for young women. As distancing measures are put in place and people are encouraged to stay at home, the risk of family members’ violence is likely to increase. This means that young women face double tragedy due to the closure of schools as they will be forced to spend more time with family members who might be abusers due to lockdowns.
In South Africa, the face of higher education is a poor, black working-class young person who comes from the townships and villages of the country. Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande in his budget vote address to Parliament at the beginning of the year stated that for the 2020 academic year, more than 50% of students enrolled in the entire higher education system come from poor households. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is now responsible for most of the fees revenue that universities and vocational colleges receive, and basic student life utilities such as transport, stationery, meals, and textbooks are settled by the government for each of those students. Most of these students were housed in their Universities student accommodation but they had been released from these houses in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. This was done as a way to observe social distancing and avoid the spread of the disease. Closure of the houses made classes to be switched to online platforms as students had to go back to their homes. South African townships and villages do not have the basic infrastructure that students need to function. In addition, most households and communities are not conducive spaces for a fulfilling learning experience.
Blended learning is being adopted as an educational approach during and post-lockdown worldwide and in South Africa. It is a concept that was developed in the early 1960s and has evolved to different approaches that are widely practiced in educational systems all over the world. ‘Blending’ is a word that connotes the combination of different components into a whole new structure and consequently formed the basis for the conceptualization of blended learning. Blended learning can be described as the integration of the conventional face-to-face learning method with a digital or online learning method. Blended learning can be considered as virtual learning and it is widely applicable in curriculum implementation in situations where participants are separated by distance. In virtual learning, educators can use computer-generated classrooms to teach learners with the use of online tools enabling the continuation of classes while the government’s rules and regulations on social distancing are still observed. However, teachers and learners must be properly trained on computer-based instruction before it can be effectively implemented as teaching methods. It must nevertheless be noted that rural and poor schools would not benefit much from this teaching method and would still be left behind due to poverty and backwardness in technology as stated above. Also, tertiary students who do not have access to computers and other facilities that facilitates virtual learning will be affected negatively. Governments should therefore in partnership with school authorities make ways to make sure that every student gains access to virtual classes.
Parental and family support is important during the lockdown period due to the coronavirus pandemic Parents and family must consciously and deliberately support children in completing a few hours of school work. A Human Sciences Research Council study in 2017 on early educational environments found that close to one-third of parents reported that they read books to their children and played with alphabets, number toys, and word games. Half of them reported that they wrote numbers, watched educational TV, and sang songs with their children. The patterns are different for learners in fee and no-fee schools. But home activities are happening and parents must be supported and encouraged to continue with educational activities. The government must take steps to mitigate the effects of school closures on girls, boys, and their families. Education authorities and schools must ensure education continues in the event of school closures. Schools that are opening should be supported to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19, with attention paid to protecting students and staff from discrimination and stigma associated with infection.
In conclusion, despite the best efforts of government, schools, and parents there will be learning losses for almost everybody and worsened educational outcomes for the poor and vulnerable groups including girls and young women. It is also important to start preparing for the recovery period when schools reopen. The curriculum must be simplified, targeting areas where learning loss will be most consequential for the following years. The sad and uncomfortable truth is that for South Africa, with low and unequal achievement scores, the longer social distancing is in place the bigger the learning losses for learners, especially the most disadvantaged. These losses will just further deepen inequalities.
As we celebrate Youth Day, we should consider measures that we can put in place to curtail the losses that were brought to the education of the youth by the unanticipated COVID-19 crisis.
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