South Africa: COVID-19, schools reopening and digital learning

COVID-19 has jolted a South African education sector that has not seen a mass disruption of learning on this scale. An immediate, coordinated response was required. The strategic relationships we had built with key influencers in government and quasi-government bodies came in handy. Through a phone call with the CEO of the National Education Collaboration Trust, we agreed to create an “Interim Education Sector Emergency Steering Team”. This team had the goodwill of the Government and private sector. Inputs, including resources for the response, were swift.

Reopening schools

School reopening was an emotive issue in South Africa, and the Government expected UNICEF to stand by it and be an additional voice championing the rights of children. With fears about school-based infection being highlighted by some, I used the respect for UNICEF and high-level relationships to champion reopening.

One such opportunity was the Minister for Basic Education’s press briefing on the first phase of schools reopening. At short notice, late in the evening, UNICEF’s Deputy Representative was able to join the Minister, Deputy Minister and Director General before the presser. The evening and following day were full of reactions, some positive, some not so much. The negative reception in some quarters did not discourage me … our position was to support reopening.

A second opportunity came when the Minister of Basic Education held a consultative meeting with stakeholders in which I asked to speak, though it was not on the agenda. I reiterated UNICEF’s position thus:

  1. children are not the super spreaders some take them to be;
  2. we should not relegate science to the periphery of the discourse on reopening;
  3. the Government had done a great job in making schools ready; and,
  4. the best interest of the child should override other considerations


Championing children’s best interest is the core of UNICEF’s mandate. Our passion is to see children back in school.

I am pleased to say that all schools reopened by August and children are back, though at 50 per cent capacity. This means embracing blended learning — a combination of in-person classes and a special package of radio and TV broadcasts, with online support through the 2Enable app and portal as part of our strategy and vision in ‘opening up better’.

Digital learning offers tremendous opportunity for South Africa: there is a plethora of credible providers, rich content, a supportive national Department of Basic Education, and children eager to embrace learning. The main challenge remains high data costs, which once addressed would unleash the potential to complement face- to-face learning, which remain the basic competency of the school system.

The new normal

On reflection, I have two main points to note:

One, while risks were real, the strategic interventions we took, such as developing missing content for Grades R (reception) to Grade 3 and materials for distribution through social media and websites, served learners well. The British Council later approached UNICEF for an expanded partnership on this initiative.

A second critical lesson is what strong government commitment can do even in the face of significant challenges. The Government of South Africa has had a pragmatic, thorough and evidence-based, consultative and resolute response. UNICEF South Africa is very appreciative of this dynamism, and the space given it to be a trusted partner.

As we enter ‘the new normal’, our goal remains to strengthen the system to deliver a trimmed down curriculum, support school-based assessment, and effectively monitor learning, with keen attention to psychosocial support for learners and teachers. I see opportunity in the current curriculum trimming exercise for a broader debate on an overall curriculum overhaul, which would be an opportunity to emphasise the key, essential and critical skills that children need.

That digital learning will be a key feature is indubitable.

Wycliffe Otieno is Chief of Education, UNICEF South Africa.

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