By Nathan Martin – Tatenda Mafodya was struggling to remember when lockdown began in South Africa. “It’s been 21, no wait, 27 days.”

An understandable slip. Time plays by different rules these days. Personal and work life blur.

Teachers have faced their own challenges in the wake of COVID-19. For over 90% of the world’s student population, school is closed. Of the approximately 1.5 billion students impacted, 320 of them attend Streetlight Schools: Jeppe Park in Johannesburg, South Africa.

This is the school led by Tatenda, alongside 18 teachers, dedicated to providing high-quality learning to underserved communities in South Africa. When I talked to Tatenda last week to understand these challenges, she was, like most of us, working from home, juggling phone calls and meetings while her two daughters (ages 7 and 2) played in the background.

“When the lockdown was first announced, we wanted to give physical packets for the students because it is an underserved community, some of the parents don’t have data, they don’t have smartphones,” Tatenda shared. “But on the day we were printing the physical packets, there was an electricity outage. We could only print and hand out a few to the parents.”

Streetlight has never shied away from a challenge. Opened in 2016, it offers a rigorous and expansive curriculum, incorporating yoga, coding and dance with an academic slate allowing its students to achieve up to two years higher on benchmark tests than their South African counterparts.

I was first introduced to the school, and met its founder Melanie Smuts, while building Matterfund, an intelligence platform for education organisations. The team at Streetlight exemplify the lesser-heard voices in education that I’ve been on a mission to amplify and help. They go above and beyond, providing food, uniforms and extracurriculars for low-income students at a fraction of their actual cost (or for free). Class starts at 7am each morning and finishes at 5pm, allowing parents to go to work while ensuring their children are learning and safe.

The disruption has forced rapid experimentation. The school pivoted to Whatsapp groups, forming groups for each grade led by a team leader and sending out learning packets.

“We make sure that teachers provide specific instructions and voice notes to help the parents understand the work,” said Tatenda. “The students send screenshots of their work to the teachers and then the teachers offer meaningful feedback.”

But not all students were using the groups, some didn’t have access to phones, some weren’t even with their parents. For parents who are essential workers (such as security guards or shop workers), the closure of schools meant there would be no childcare, so they sent their children to stay with relatives in more rural areas.

“We serve many students, students whose parents may not have work now,” said Tatenda. “They are suffering, forced to choose between buying food or data so their children can access the lessons. We’re doing what we can, buying data and foodpacks.”

distance teaching homework

The scenario with Tatenda and the team at Streetlight is one playing out over and over again across the world. Teachers may not be in the classroom but remain on the frontlines battling the impact of COVID-19. Digital learning is on the rise, resources more readily available than ever, but education is about more than just the transmission of content. The learner needs care, support and guidance.

Highlighting the importance of that work is critical, but so is understanding what might be needed in the days and months ahead.

“The work that the teachers are doing with the students is beyond the curriculum; we are still trying to create a positive and safe space for our students,” said Tatenda. “We get videos, notes from students and parents saying ‘Oh, we miss you, we miss school so much, when can I come back to school?'”

The numbers are starting to go up. Teachers have weekly calls to share strategies, to stay motivated. They call parents to check in, to encourage participation. They’re looking into acquiring cheap smartphones for parents. One teacher is using Zoom.

Plans have been announced to slowly lift the lockdown in South Africa, but teachers and parents are still waiting to understand what that means for students and schools. Meanwhile Tatenda and her team will keep on.

“For our teachers, it is always about the students. They miss their students, miss caring for them. They worry about how much the students are missing out but it’s not just about the academic work.” Tatenda added, “We know if the kids are not ok socially, they can’t learn. So we keep checking in on how they are doing in the lockdown, how they’re handling it, trying to stay positive.”


About The Contributor

Nathan Martin is a storyteller and strategist advising start-ups, C-level executives and government ministers on education, culture, workforce development and our changing relationship with technology. Nathan is the founder of the first social intelligence platform for education development, Matterfund, supporting education leaders in the use of data-driven platforms to drive smarter edtech decision-making. Follow Nathan on Twitter @nathanmart.