Amangwane High, a beacon of hope during the pandemic

A rural high school in Bergville has shown that through sound leadership and working with the community, it is possible to safely resume learning during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nozipho Molefe was anxious about her school reopening in the middle of a pandemic. But despite that, the learner from Amangwane High School in Bergville, in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal, prepared to resume learning after a two-month pause. 

The 18-year-old from kwaThusi village in Zwelisha reached into her wardrobe and took out her white school shirt, her green pleated skirt that matched her green socks and her black Grasshopper school shoes. With pride, she laid them out when murmurings of schools reopening amplified. 

When Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga finally made the announcement on 19 May, the grade 12 pupil was ready to return to school. She hadn’t set foot there since 18 March.

“At first I was scared, but when we got to school on Monday 8 June, I realised that there were sanitisers at the gate. Our teachers also told us not to be scared of anything, it will pass and that everything was in our hands. We will beat the virus.”

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Molefe is an only child. Her mother, Elizabeth Molefe, 38, works as an informal trader selling fish in Newcastle. Nozipho lives with her unemployed grandmother, Anna Molefe, 56.

“My grandmother was not scared when she heard that schools were opening because she could see that I was struggling to study at home. But my mom on the other hand was shocked and thought that I might get the coronavirus.”

Molefe, who wants to be a biochemical scientist, says that during the two-month break, her teachers created WhatsApp groups to ensure that learning continued. “We do not have access to apps like Skype and Zoom for online learning so it was difficult, because if you did not have data, there was a lot of catching up to do on WhatsApp and self study is difficult.” 

Doubts on school readiness 

Molefe wakes up at 5.30am and walks 4km to school. “Being back at school has been incredible because we are learning again,” she says.

While Molefe has confidence in the measures to protect her fellow pupils and teachers, the decision to reopen schools was met with a heavy backlash.

Within days of President Cyril Ramaphosa announcing that schools would be reopening under level three of the country’s Covid-19 lockdown, there were concerns and a strong pushback from unions, parents and education bodies. 

Five teachers’ unions heavily criticised the Department of Basic Education after Motshekga announced the reopening of schools for all grade 7 and 12 learners on 1 June.

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The South African Democratic Teachers Union, National Teachers’ Union, National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa, Professional Educators’ Union and Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysersunie, or South African Teachers’ Union, doubted the state of readiness around the country even though the department had 80% of the schools ready at the time. 

Schools eventually opened on 8 June, a week later than originally scheduled. In KwaZulu-Natal, only about 4 000 of the province’s 6 000 schools were ready.

As predicted by the unions, the province was off to a rocky start. KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi has acknowledged that the department’s fears were realised when cases of Covid-19 were reported. In the province, 33 schools have reported coronavirus cases. 

“Together, with the Department of Health, [we] engaged about the protocols that are meant to be implemented when infections arise insofar as disinfecting the schools, decontaminating, sanitising the school, and the whole procedure of tracing and testing did take place to an extent that 14 of our schools are ready to open on Monday 15 June,” said Mahlambi, adding that the department was happy with the progress that had been made.

Playing catch-up 

Though Amangwane is not one of the schools that have been affected, history and computer teacher Simphiwe Njoko, 41, says he is relieved that his pupils managed almost to complete the year’s curriculum. “This is because the day starts at 6am and ends at 7pm for all matriculants. So by June, we would have started doing revision and then Covid-19 disturbed everything,” says Njoko.

“What’s been the most challenging since we got back is that we have to wear masks and when you talk with the mask, you cannot project your voice properly. The face shields work better.”

Another challenge is that because of the rules and regulations that have been implemented, it now takes longer to begin the school day. “When they arrive, we need to ensure that they are wearing masks, we need to ensure that they sanitise, all of that admin takes time but it is important.”

Njoko says he is willing to sacrifice his own life for the success of his pupils, most of whom come from impoverished homes. “I acknowledge that the virus kills. But when I see the children, and just knowing that their hopes and dreams also need us to make some sacrifices, makes it all worth it. The minister [Motsekga] knows that we are placing the lives of the children in danger. But we have to go back to school.”

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Member of the school governing body Fikile Hlubi says the school has done well under extremely difficult conditions and it will be monitored continuously.

She attributes the school’s success in coping during the pandemic to a remarkable partnership between the school and the community. “We realised that if Covid-19 is here for the next four years, then we cannot have the children not go to school for the next four years.”

Initially, the school’s state of readiness had parent Sikhumbuzo Khoza, 51, feeling scared. But she was confident that because it was in a rural area, “it was fairly safe for now”.

“Remember, our children did not have advanced online learning like other children living in urban areas or who come from more fortunate homes, so there was not a lot of learning taking place. So as you can imagine, our children are extremely happy to go back to school. They can learn again.”

However, Khoza encourages the learners and their educators to continue practising physical distancing because “the worst is not over”. He admits that initially, when the announcement was made, he was nervous.

High matric pass rate 

Steering the ship is principal Nhlanhla Dube, who has been with the school for more than 20 years. Dube has become somewhat of a beacon of hope not only for his teachers and pupils, but in the rural community, too. So when the 2020 school year began, he had high hopes of achieving a good matric pass rate, as he is used to doing. Dube has made headlines for the school’s pass rate, which is consistently close to 100% despite its struggles. 

This high pass rate is because of what they call a 6-4-6 turnaround strategy, which means that school starts at 6am and goes until 2pm, followed by a two-hour break to freshen up before pupils return to class at 4pm with the day ending at 6pm.

“The problem is that our classes have an average of 63 learners and suddenly we had a class of 81 matrics. And remember that we are a quintile two school with very little resources and we are a no-fee school.” Schools are divided into five quintiles in South Africa, with quintile one to three schools referred to as no-fee schools as they cannot charge fees.

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This year there are 192 grade 12 learners. Despite that big number, Dube and his colleagues hope to do better than 2018’s pass rate of 98.6%.

“We work hard even though there was a time of uncertainty about the schooling year, because at one point we did not know whether we were going to continue or stop schooling completely this year and how long we were going to stay at home.”

What helped, says Dube, is that he and his teachers knew they had made a commitment to ensuring that their pupils got a fair chance to succeed in life.

“When the department announced that schools were reopening, we knew that we needed to take the challenge because when the kids were at home, they were not really learning about Covid-19. But by being at school, we could make a difference because we taught them about social distancing and using sanitisers, and they took that information home to their parents and their communities. We, in a way, as teachers, have become instrumental in bringing change and awareness about the virus.”

A united, community effort

Dube established teams of community members to help clean the school and put measures in place to ensure that pupils and teachers were protected when the school reopened. “I trained them in cleaning the desks, washing windows, fixing the drainage systems, including the toilets, and cutting the grass.”

At first Dube, like other members of his community, says he was afraid and nervous about placing the lives of others at risk and the potential of spreading the coronavirus. But with support from the school governing body and members of the community, all that faded away.

“My problem was where were we going to get the additional teachers for all these new class numbers. We should ideally have 39 teachers, but we only have 33. In terms of water, I knew we were going to be okay because I had 19 000 litres of water and we have toilets. We were supplied with sanitisers, disinfectants and masks, so we were sorted with the PPE [personal protective equipment].”

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Even though there have been positive cases of the coronavirus in some schools across KwaZulu-Natal, Dube says he is happy and feels blessed with the way everything has panned out for his school.

Mahlambi says that while the department is concerned that infections will increase as winter progresses, the great leadership shown at Amangwane gives it hope. 

“Our educators come from the very communities that our learners are coming from, so there is no way where we can avoid dealing with a situation where there are a lot of positive cases of the virus.

“We are working together with the Department of Health and orientating our educators and learners of the regulations … We think that we are going to mitigate the impact that the increases will have in our schooling system,” says Mahlambi.

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