Connecting Schools and Communities

Something interesting caught my attention when government went into action with the lockdown in the country – 10 000 community health care workers were deployed for mass community–based screenings, referral to clinics for testing, assisting with the quarantining of suspected cases, and providing appropriate care for Covid-19 patients. South Africa has a large pool of community health care workers, and establishing them as a key primary health care group was inspired by Brazil’s preventative Family Health Strategy. They have been trained to support the health needs of the country, and form part of the effort to shift health care services and support out from the clinics and into communities – where it is most needed.

As frontline service providers, the community health care workers provide indispensable support to communities. They were most important in rolling out anti-retroviral treatments (ARTs) as well as treatments for Tuberculosis (TB) to tens of thousands of people across country. Given adequate support with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other resources, this unheralded group may yet emerge among the real heroes of South Africa’s fight to effectively contain the devastating health effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

So why is this observation important, and what is its relevance to education? Community health care workers are at the forefront of dealing with major health challenges, and have proved to be effective in the delivery of services at the point where these services are needed the most.

Times of crises should not shut down imagination, nor the hope engendered by the human spirit. What if we think about developing a cadre of young people as community educators who can connect education in schools to communities, and provide indispensable support as community workers in improving the quality of public education in our country?

Community educators can be trained to perform two very important roles that are relevant to both the current moment as well as the future of education in the country.

Firstly, they can be at the forefront of a national programme to significantly improve the levels of literacy and numeracy in our public schools – and to do so at scale. Research, as well as practice-based, local knowledge, confirms the importance of these basic skills as the foundation for educational success later in life. With the pandemic and the subsequent disruption to schooling, we have to forego the ideas of curriculum completion and catch-up for this year. Even online learning platforms may not yield the desired learning outcomes, given our socio-economic and educational inequalities. A focus on strengthening numeracy and literacy, especially in the primary phases of schooling, will have much more of a positive effect on student learning over the longer term.

Secondly community educators can also be trained to assist with the health, well-being, and safety regimes at schools. We cannot and should not expect our teachers, who are already doing their best under stressful conditions, to shoulder the added responsibilities of new tasks foisted upon schools by the Covid-19 pandemic. Schools will need help from a range of partners to get back to a form of effective functionality, and community educators can play a key role in responding to their health needs. They can also serve as a bridge into the community, engaging with parents and other stakeholders around the health and educational issues of the learners. Their activities could range from checking up on learner health in the home to facilitating reading circles in community spaces.

The role of community educators in supporting the learning and psycho-social needs of children should not be seen as an activity that runs parallel to the core work of schools – it should be integrated into schooling as a form of complementary learning, or learning and development that supports the work of schools and is connected to it.

As in the case of community health care workers, community educators should be young people who come from the communities in which they live, and are trained and supported to make a contribution to the development of their communities – this is the exercise of agency that is most relevant to context.

South Africa has never been short of ideas about how to deal with some of its most protracted challenges. What is often lacking is capacity and will. There are a number of institutions and organizations that have the knowledge resources and community outreach experiences to assist government in developing and implementing an effective community educator programme. Among these are the Centre for the Community School and the faculties of Education and Health Sciences at Nelson Mandela University. Their work in and with communities over a number of years make them even more relevant in contributing to the public good during times like these.

So is the concept of the community educator just an idea? Maybe. But great feats of humanity are often sparked by the beauty of imagination.