The abrupt closure of schools to contain the spread of COVID-19 affected a record 1,5 billion learners worldwide and approximately 14 million learners in South Africa (UNESCO). In a country classified as one of the most unequal in the world, only a few learners could continue learning at home, while the majority lacked resources, whether printed, technology-driven or connectivity-related, to undertake any form of learning at home. For many, the closure of schools meant that learning stopped. There was a need for government, donors and civil society to respond with urgency and put measures in place to mitigate the impact of school closures on learning.
Consistent with our principle to build knowledge and understanding of what works and does not work in education support, our approach was underpinned by key principles that have always governed how we work, namely, generating evidence to inform our programmes, collaborating for systemic impact, and learning and sharing.
We gathered evidence through commissioning research to support leadership decisions, learn more about the impact of the virus and understand how best to respond. We funded, among others:
- the JET Research Bootcamp, #OpenUpYourThinking, to understand the pressures placed on the education system by the virus and identify possible solutions;
- a household telephonic survey by Social Surveys to understand the pressures on parents as well as their capacity to assist their children whilst at home; and
- the tracking of social media sentiments, which showed that schooling (#schoolsreopening) trended second to #COVID19 across all social media.
To better understand the changing education landscape, we also focused on collaborating and developing a co-ordinated response to the pandemic. To this end, we funded a series of engagements to promote collaboration through the Independent Philanthropy Association of South Africa (IPASA). To enhance learning, the Zenex team attended and participated extensively in webinars hosted by partners from the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), to Trialogue and National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM).
As part of learning, it was important to understand the Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) response, which sought to balance health and safety in schools with saving the academic year. The DBE was managing multiple voices of key education stakeholders including teacher and learner representatives and civil society, who weighed in on debates about the readiness of schools to reopen during the lockdown. Legitimate fears and concerns had to be balanced against medical views which indicated that children were at less risk of infection and would be better served for academic, psycho-social, economic and nutritional reasons, by going back to school.
All these processes informed the Zenex Foundation COVID-19 response.
At the core of our strategy was learning more about grantees and supporting them through this period. A Zenex survey of project partners on the impact of COVID-19 on their organisations and project implementation showed that some projects could continue per original design; some could be redesigned, and that new projects had to be designed to meet the current challenges and beyond.
We adopted a three-pronged strategy to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on education: i. working in schools to support curriculum recovery and bolster government-driven programmes; ii. supporting learning at home, based on the evidence that the home-school nexus is critical to supporting education in crisis contexts, and iii. promoting learning through advocacy and public education campaigns on COVID-19 safety, especially in school contexts.
Our response stayed true to our current Zenex Strategy 2025 focus areas of supporting mathematics and language in the Foundation and Senior Phases; working with teachers and learners to address cumulative learning backlogs; developing resources to strengthen learning and teaching; commissioning research and evaluations to promote learning, and collaborating and sharing learnings.
As such, despite some strategic deviations (like supporting learning in school and at home) and some real tests in how we work, our strategic approach to COVID-19 is built on a solid foundation that seeks to have a real impact on education in South Africa.
COVID-19 will intensify education inequality and learning losses, especially in the poorest schools, which has always been a concern in our education system. The crisis presents an opportunity for the education sector to realise its goal to #BuildBackBetter. Working together will be critical to rebuilding from the crisis. Collaboration and partnerships are the cornerstones of our investment approach and Zenex stands ready to drive and participate in collaborative efforts.
See a graphic depiction of the Journey (First published in The Trialogue Business in Society Handbook 2020).