The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted education across the globe, and while schools have managed to carry on using online resources and dividing attendance days, some students have been unable to return to school as a result of this disruption.
According to a recent report by South Africa's National Income Dynamics Study - Coronavirus Rapid Mobile (NIDS-CRAM), an estimated 750,000 school children in the country may have dropped out a result of the pandemic. This a vast increase from the pre-pandemic figure of 230,000, and a significant jump from the 300,000 primary school children that were reported absent seven months ago.
In November 2020, South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, confirmed that more than 300,000 children had potentially dropped out of primary schools across South Africa over a six-month period.
The NIDS-CRAM report indicates that student dropout rates are the highest they have been in 20 years. The Department of Basic Education's Nompumelelo Mohohlwane explained at the launch of the report that an estimated 650,000 to 750,000 of South Africa's 13 million school-aged children between the agest of 7 and 17 were not in school by May 2021.
According to Mohohlwane, disruptions to the school year caused by the pandemic have played a large role in children not returning, as children have had to learn from home for certain periods of time due to national COVID-19 precautionary measures.
“The public discourse was that there was rotational attendance or another form of online attendance which meant that children were learning. But learning losses have continued because of rotational attendance, even after returning.”
She went on to explain that the Free State and Eastern Cape provinces had the lowest school return rate.
This differs largely from the department's school absentee reporting from November 2020, where KwaZulu-Natal province recorded the highest number of absentees in six months, closely followed by the Western Cape and Gauteng provinces.
In November Minister Motshekga stated that the national Department of Basic Education would be working towards getting children reinstated in school, and they would be exploring several methods to encourage parents to prioritise their children’s education.
“[We] encourage parents to send absent learners to school. Through telephone calls, SMSs, local radio stations, and home visits, dates for returning of respective grades are timeously communicated to parents and learners. A demerit system is used on learners who are absent without valid reasons,” she said.
While the minister did not approach the issue of affordability of costs that go towards sending a child to school, including fees, transport, and school supplies, it is important to note that a large number of South Afrricans have become unemployed as a result of the pandemic.
Statistics South Africa reported that 2.2 million jobs were lost as a result of the economy shutting down during the lockdown period, and this potentially could have an affect on children’s school attendance.
Furthermore, as many schools have been supplementing with online learning, a large number of South African households cannot afford the computers or the internet access required for this to be a feasible option.
This could mean that some children have missed out on large chunks of their school curriculum and may not be up to participating at school, not to mention the end of year tests and examinations.
In response to the NIDS-CRAM figures, Zero Dropout Campaign, an initiative that aims to halve the number of South Africa's school dropouts by 2030, had said that the governement needs to work on a comprehensive catch up plan for students who have dropped out.
"Before the pandemic, schooling was already characterised by too little learning, high levels of inequality, and regular disruption," the organisation said in a statement on their website. "Now, more than ever, we need a national, comprehensive response to school dropout that includes a national catch-up strategy attuned to the diverse needs of learners."
It continued: “We need to meet learners at their level and respond to their needs. Where possible, plans to recover lost learning, through accelerated catch-up programmes, should be tailored to learners’ needs, rather than their age or grade.”
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