The fact that schools are open and have adapted to a new, albeit restricted functionality under Covid -19 without any major disruptions in terms of closures or new outbreaks is a testament to the commitment, resilience, and adeptness of our school leaders and teachers. They are the ones who have been called upon to make the most profound changes in education, and they have done so despite numerous challenges, inadequate support, and under the stressful conditions in which they must do their daily work. MEC Panyaza Lesufi hailed their “determination… regardless of the limitations,” to keep their schools functioning. I call this grit. What they are displaying is true grit.

It seems to me that in asking schools to also encourage greater “learning at home” in terms of curriculum recovery, we, as all the other stakeholders, are abdicating our responsibility in supporting schools (especially our township public schools) with curriculum catch-up over the longer term. In making these suggestions, some scholars, policy-makers, education commentators and others seem to be foisting responsibility for addressing many of the current challenges to schooling solely on our school leaders and teachers.

This is naïve, unrealistic, and insensitive to the realities of schooling during the present time. Many of our school leaders and teachers, like our health care workers, may be superheroes, but they are certainly not endowed with supernatural powers and abilities. There is no “magic wand” approach that will suddenly transform our parents and other family members, especially in our township and rural communities, into home-based educators who will mitigate some of the learning losses experienced during this time.

There are parents from these communities who are trying hard to support their children at home, but the best these efforts may yield is maintaining learner attachment to school. In many communities, the concurrent effects of the pandemic on households make parents even less equipped to provide the support needed by learners as they struggle with job security and unemployment; health risks; psychosocial stress; and substance abuse (to name but a few) challenges in the home. It is true that vulnerable families and learners are the most at risk, and are always disproportionately affected during times of crises – the learning slide or loss for children and young people will be the greatest in these communities, and neither their parents nor our schools will be able to make up for it on their own.

So, what are we to do about curriculum recovery, school attendance, and drop-out? These are three current challenges that many schools on their own will not be able to address in an effective manner, especially over the short term. The above question is a broader leadership question, and one that should not be asked by school leaders alone. A leader has to have a vision for addressing these challenges and a plan to achieve it. The leader must inspire and mobilize others to implement the plan, and, the leader must monitor progress in achieving milestones of progress along the way.

We need a societal response to the above question – one that focuses on supplementary education support beyond what is provided to schools at present. There are numerous community organizations and education-focused non-profits that are working in schools, and they can form part of a purposeful and coordinated approach to building networks of support around schools.

Times of crises should not shut down imagination, nor the hope engendered by the human spirit. South Africa has never been short of ideas about how to deal with some of its most protracted challenges. What we sometimes lack is will and capacity. Here is one idea that serves as an example of supplementary education in our country. I wrote about it in April this year, one month into the first lockdown period.

It was about recruiting, training, and employing young people from our communities (those with matric or university degrees who currently not in training or employment) as community education workers. I borrowed this from the concept and practice of community healthcare workers, who were effectively deployed in communities to roll out anti-retroviral treatment (ARTs) as well as treatments for Tuberculosis (TB) to tens of thousands of people across the country. They have also been deployed for community mobilization, testing, and contact tracing to try and contain the devastating health effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Community education workers can bridge the gap between school and home. They can work inside the school to support the teaching and learning processes, as well as outside of the school – where their activities may range from checking up on learner health and school attendance, to facilitating reading and learning circles in community spaces. This could form part of a comprehensive after-school programme that takes place over weekends or school holidays.

Community education workers can also be at the forefront of a national programme to significantly improve the levels of basic 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 skills as the foundation for educational success later in life.

With the pandemic and the subsequent disruption to schooling, we have to forego the idea of curriculum recovery and catch-up for this year. It will take much longer than this. 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.

President Ramaphosa indicated in a recent speech that government was going to use young people to assist schools. This is a good sign. We must ensure that this is done in a purposeful and coordinated manner that integrates any supplementary (additional) initiative into the core (teaching and learning) work of schools. This is what we call complementary learning – where the different learning programmes build off each other and are ultimately connected to the instructional core of schools.

Back to the role of our school leaders. Research has shown the importance of leaders in helping their schools to rise above their circumstances to deliver outstanding academic performance. One common feature of these leaders is their ability to reach out and work with community partners (including parents) to achieve success. This is the kind of leadership that is required during this time. It is about seeing and leading beyond the school walls. We must prepare and support our leaders to extend their influence and cross school boundaries to tap into networks of support that will help their schools achieve its goals.

In closing, let me say that, “Sometime in the not too distant future, we will look back and call school leaders and teachers our heroes … heroes who displayed true grit … in the face of almost overwhelming challenges …to educate our children…”


Dr Al Witten was the founding director of the Centre for the Community School, which is located in the Education Faculty of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. He has been involved in the field of education for almost 30 years, and has more than 20 years of experience as a teacher and principal in township schools in Cape Town.