THE latest consultations between the Department of Basic Education and teacher unions over whether schooling should continue and in what form was always going to be contentious.
The call by unions for schools to be closed is both commendable and understandable. But a question that has to be raised now is whether this crisis should not have been used as an opportunity to introduce minimal contact, remote learning and teaching in South Africa’s public schools.
The sad reality is that the time for exploring this method may have been lost. Public schools closed in the middle of March when the National State of Disaster was declared, even before the National Lockdown.
During April, the government’s scientific advice already indicated that the peak of infections may be reached around August and from that point the option of remote teaching until at least September should have been looked into.
The first problem appears to be that the urge to reopen schools is less about the provision of education than it is about control. It is pressure transmitted from the economic sectors to open factories.
This requires children to return to the classroom for parents to go back to their factory and domestic worker jobs, which requires children to be in a classroom at least for a part of the day.
For if the primary concern was the delivery education, a solution would have at the very least, have been thoroughly investigated. Independent schools have largely carried on teaching and learning through online learning, which is a techno-centric education delivery method that would be hard to replicate in a public schooling system with 30 000 schools catering for 12.5 million children across a diverse range of income levels.
But schools the world over are having to adapt to alternatives methods of delivery beyond COVID-19.
Remote learning may be a permanent feature of schooling as disruptions may be caused by localized factors such as inclement weather, strikes load shedding or temporary closure of a school in order to fix infrastructure.
COVID-19 requires everyone to be adaptable.
What needs be explored for a public schooling system is to have minimal contact remote learning where guardians and elder learners can come to school once a week, with health protocols in place, to drop off work and pick up newly prepared work packs for learners to complete at home.
There can be scheduled, half-hour consultation sessions with teachers for individuals or small groups.
These can then be complemented by low cost technological solutions such as WhatsApp on a basic smartphone.
The Department of Basic Education would have to carry the cost of this rollout using reprioritised spending in the supplementary budget.
Some private sectors companies already provide education resources for free, including no data cost.
These can be scaled up and replicated to district or provinces where they are not currently available. There are many obstacles to the delivery of this solution, including the absence of an elder with a capability to supervise schoolwork in some households or absence of a person to make the weekly trip to fetch and collect work form school.
Some people may cite distance to and from school in cases where learners use subsidized scholar transport under normal circumstances.
But the provision of quality education, whether public or private, is a function of resources. But it is also about the dedication from teachers, learners, and parents.
What COVID-19 may force us into is a shift in the degree of responsibility between each of these and parents have to shoulder an increased proportion of that responsibility.
The delivery method may also work better for affluent suburb public schools as well as township schools within in densely populated areas.
It might not work so well in urban areas or rural schools.
But the first step to begin with is to assess in which district is the model viable and where it is not.
The model can be implemented where circumstances permit and refined where there are delivery gaps, but there will be general progress in schooling.
If the two parties cannot reach an agreement on remote teaching and learning then the question reportedly posed by the minister of whether teachers should continue to be paid becomes a fair and pertinent ones since other civil servants, from health workers, police, social services and even clerks in government offices that offer non-core functions are working at a risk of exposure.
Teachers may be right to call for schools to close, but they have to offer solutions if they are to continue to enjoy their livelihood.