Eastern Cape pupils face consequences of Covid-19

Young people are anxious about missed schoolwork and exposure to the coronavirus on public transport, while teachers struggle to teach in masks and a principal worries about his matric pass rate.

The reopening of schools has left pupils from Mpambani Mzimba Secondary School in Gaga, Alice, in the Eastern Cape feeling anxious. The disruption to learning during the Covid-19 pandemic has hit teenagers in villages such as this particularly hard, especially in terms of the technological and economic impact of the lockdown. 

Grade 11 pupil Bulumko Mlamla, 17, said there is no way of catching up for lost time. “Our syllabus has been reduced because of this virus and the education we were supposed to receive is not enough. We are currently getting half of the package, which is not pleasing at all.”

Three other pupils from the school – Luthweseni Njoba, 16, in grade 8; Olungako Mavengana, 18, in grade 11; and Siphesihle Dyabayi, 16, in grade 11 – expressed similar concerns. 

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Luthweseni said that when they first heard about the coronavirus, she and her friends thought it was a big joke. “I was happy that I was going to stay at home and not attend school.” But now they are worried about the form of transport they have to use. 

“We face a serious problem in the mornings and afternoons. In the public transport, like vans and taxis for instance, there’s no social distance, no sanitisation taking place, and sometimes passengers don’t wear masks. The drivers just take money and go. We are at risk as young people. I don’t know why the adults don’t think about our safety,” she said. 

Concerned adults 

When 20 people tested positive for Covid-19 – 15 pupils, three teachers and two non-teaching members of staff – it resulted in 31 schools in the Eastern Cape shutting, according to a June report by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. And a few months ago, the South African Teachers’ Union and other prominent teachers’ unions threatened that they would not return to work until the Department of Basic Education had guaranteed the safety of pupils and teachers during the pandemic. The government ended up closing schools for about five months, before all grades were allowed to return. 

School principal Nceba Ngqaleni is “very worried and unhappy” about Mpambani Mzimba’s matric results for 2020. He said grade 12 pupils hadn’t attended regularly and their parents refused to allow them to camp at the school. As such, he is predicting a decrease in results this year. 

26 August 2020: From left, Siphesihle Dyabayi, Olungako Mavengana, Bulumko Mlamla and Luthweseni Njoba. On 31 August, the last cohort of learners returned to school after an absence of five months.

“The trial will determine what the final results would be. I am very worried that we may not achieve the 94% that the school managed to get in 2019,” said Ngqaleni. 

“We don’t have any Covid-19 cases at the moment and the classes are running smoothly since we returned to school. The only challenge is that the learners often leave their masks at home, which shows that they don’t bother wearing them outside the school premises,” added the principal.

Monde Zuzani, 58, teaches isiXhosa, life orientation, history and English at Mpambani Mzimba. Pupils are back at school in line with level one lockdown regulations, but he said that although they have computers at the school, some of them do not work properly because of vandalism. 

26 August 2020: Ayabulela Saul screens a learner at the entrance to Mpambani Mzimba High School at Gaga Village in Alice.

“There is no chance of doing online teaching and learning during this period in a rural area. We also struggle with internet connection in this village,” said Zuzani. 

He said it is also difficult to teach while wearing a mask. “It is a challenge for us because we can’t get close to them. We also have to obey the regulations. That requires one to speak louder and clearer so that the learners can hear every word.”

Phindiwe Saul, 48, is a mother of three. She said that every time the government reopened schools during the lockdown, she would be anxious and scared about her children getting infected. “Although around June I was nervous, there was nothing I could do because education is the most important tool for our children’s future. In these hard economic times, we struggle to buy basic things and the child support grant money we get from government is not sufficient,” she said.

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga announced in August that the final matric exams for grade 12 pupils will start on 5 November and end on 15 December. Marking is to be completed by 22 January and the results will be released on 23 February. 

26 August 2020: Phindiwe Saul at her home. She is a concerned mother of three children who go to school at Mpambani Mzimba High School.

Cleaning and feeding 

Ayabulela Saul, 26, and Ntsimande Mlamla, 39, are the designated cleaning agents at Mpambani Mzimba high school. Mlamla sprays the walls, floors, desks and chairs with sanitiser before pupils arrive in the morning and after they’ve left for the day, and Saul takes their temperatures at the school entrance each morning to screen for fever.

Some of the pupils come from impoverished households where the only income is a monthly social grant. The government is compelled to feed more than a million learners each day across the country. In June, advocacy group Equal Education and other school governing bodies took the department to court to compel it to continue feeding learners who qualified for the National School Nutrition Programme during the lockdown. 

26 August 2020: From left: Grade 8 teachers Nomaphakathi Makwabe, Ncebakazi Mamase and Vuyiseka Boco prepare crumbly maize porridge and sour milk for learners. During most of the lockdown, learners could not get a meal.

The two women responsible for cooking food at Mpambani Mzimba, Ncebakazi Mamase, 35, and Vuyiseka Boco, 40, said the pupils “eat once a day” at 10am. They have to bring their own spoons from home for health reasons. 

One of the pupils who has appreciated this initiative is Olungako. “The food helps us, because we are able to focus in the classroom. For instance, if I left my home without eating breakfast, when I arrive at school, I know I will eat,” she said.

26 August 2020: Learners leave the assembly point after the school principal addressed them about the importance of wearing masks, sanitising and social distancing.
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