Until recently dropout wasn’t spoken about much, at least not on a national level. That was until the Covid-19 pandemic began to change our lives. When schools reopened, many teachers were left wondering why their learners were not returning, and for the first time in years, typically overcrowded classrooms were shrinking.
Nomfundo Khambule, a teacher at Khayelihle High School in the Umbumbulu region of KwaZulu- Natal, witnessed this first-hand. She works in a small rural school where amenities are few and learners must travel far to get to school. Khambule always goes above and beyond her role as a teacher, and cares deeply for her learners. “I am more than an educator, I’m also a mentor,” says Khambule. “I’ve assisted 95% of my matric class with CAO applications and other university applications and payments. I’ve also started a breakfast initiative with Mr Nxumalo where we collect donations to supply a hot plate of porridge every morning before class, so that learners can be able to focus until break time,” adds Khambule.
Despite her best efforts, Khambule’s school, like many schools, has seen high dropout rates due to the pandemic. “The pandemic has affected my school with a high dropout rate. After the lockdown about 10% of my learners never showed up,” Khambule explains.
The reality of distance learning for rural communities
Khambule says online learning has not been possible for many rural communities and schools. As a result, learners have lost out on learning and contact time with their teachers. Learning losses coupled with factors that push or pull children away from school can deepen disengagement. This is worrying as disengagement is the precursor to dropout.
“Our school is deep in the rural area and so network is always a problem. Our learners were unable to interact with the educators on the WhatsApp groups we created so they really struggled and lost out because of data and network issues,” says Khambule.
Dropout has tripled
Even before the pandemic, four out of ten learners would drop out of school before completing matric. Since the start of the pandemic, an additional 500 000 learners have dropped out https://cramsurvey.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/1.-Spaull-N.-Daniels-R.-C-et-al.-2021-NIDS-CRAM-Wave-5-Synthesis-Report.pdf. Learners are disappearing from our education system at an alarming rate.
The need for a collaborative intervention
Now, more than ever, we need a coordinated national response to reducing dropout. Schools must track and trace absent learners so that they can be brought back to class. Khambule makes a point of following up on absent learners to find out why they are staying away from school. “This is a problem that can be fixed. We need communities and schools to work together to conquer the dropout rate,” says Khambule, who recognises the need for a collaborative approach.
So, what can we do?