By Nerea González
Johannesburg, South Africa, Aug 20 (efe-epa).- Every morning at Streetlights, a private school located in one of Johannesburg’s toughest neighborhoods, teachers start the day by asking their students: “What’s the latest you’ve heard about the coronavirus?”
The question is simple but is one of the most effective ways teachers have of attempting to dispel the fear that is etched across the mask-covered faces of their primary school pupils, whose answers range from the false to the outlandish to the sombre truth.
“I’ve heard that they’ve found a cure for the virus in America,” says one student. “They’ve put lions on the streets in Russia because people were not following the rules,” says another. “You cannot see it but it can kill you,” a third pupil replies.
Class sizes at the private school, which operates as a non-profit project in the central district of Jeppestown, have been reduced to 15 pupils, and despite the devastating effects Covid-19 has had on South Africa, the world’s fifth-worst affected nation in terms of coronavirus cases, these days classes start at 7.15 sharp with a brief Coronavirus Q&A session.
The sleepy-eyed students must arrive early enough to have their shoes and hands disinfected and their temperatures taken at the school gates.
Every pupil carries a so-called “wellbeing” notebook, in which they record how they are feeling, both physically and mentally, as a way to try to make sense of these strange and unsettling times that have seen the regular din of school halls and classrooms replaced by an eerie silence.
“When we started to bring the kids back (in June), I think we were taken aback,” Tatenda Mafodya, director of Streetlights School, tells Efe. “The first day we brought in our grade fives (age nine), they’re quite a lively bunch. But when they came back in after lockdown, they were quiet and all you could see was sadness in their eyes. Sadness and fear.”
“During our morning sessions we started to have discussions with them, and we talked to them about how much they feared the virus, what if they contract the virus, what if they die or if they can take it home and pass it to someone they love,” the teacher explains.
With these and other measures, especially those limiting capacity and relating to hygiene, the school has managed to progressively welcome students back to class in recent weeks.
It is an achievement that is beyond many schools in South Africa — the epicenter of the disease on the continent — for whom the 2020 academic year is expected to be wasted.
“Rich kids and private schools went online and they lost almost no learning, there’s been no problem for them, mostly,” Melanie Smuts, the founder of the Streetlights School project, tells Efe. “But the vast majority of South African students, so 87 percent of the kids, who are in the public school system, have received almost no learning for this entire period.”
MUCH MORE THAN MISSING CLASS
Like all of South Africa’s schools, Streetlights was forced to close its doors in mid-March when the government ordered the suspension of classes and, soon after, the confinement of the entire population, to control the coronavirus outbreak.
In Jeppestown, one of Johannesburg’s most violent and impoverished neighborhoods, online classes were not a realistic option: those running the school realised that the parents of their students could, at most, provide a mobile phone with enough data for WhatsApp messaging.
For Streetlight’s 300 pupils, the quarantine stripped them not only of their education, but also the daily meals that the school provides, as well as a safe space for them to socialize and grow away from the violence of life on the tough streets of Jeppestown.
“The thing that really matters for kids who come from really difficult homes is that loss of a place that they can go every day that is safe and predictable, where there are adults who care for them and where they have friends,” Smuts says. “The effects of not having that space are enormous.”
During the early months of quarantine, the school’s teachers did what they could to send audio files with lessons and homework to the pupils’ parents over WhatsApp to keep the students engaged.
Slowly but surely, they also began sending food parcels to the families, who were left without means to make a living by the severe lockdown measures.
It was only in June, when those measures started to be relaxed, that the school could begin making plans on a strategy to welcome students back to class, as Streetlight strives to ensure that 2020 is not a lost year in terms of education, and that the children of Jeppestown can once again be guaranteed their “safe space”.