Rising to the challenge: teaching during a pandemic

Nomfundo Khambule is a teacher at Khayelihle High School in the Umbumbulu region of KwaZulu- Natal.

Nomfundo Khambule is helping learners to feel safe, access a warm meal, and stay connected to school.

Dropout is currently three times pre-pandemic levels, with the Covid-19 pandemic worsening the disruptions that would typically cause a learner to dropout.  When schools reopened after a protracted closure last year, many learners did not return to class. For the first time in years, typically overcrowded classrooms had shrunk.

Nomfundo Khambule, a teacher at Khayelihle High School in the Umbumbulu region of KwaZulu- Natal, is one of many educators who are adapting to the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Khambule works in a rural school where amenities are few and learners must travel far to get to class. Khambule cares deeply for her learners and embodies what it means to be a champion teacher. “I am more than an educator, I’m also a mentor,” she says.

“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.

Khambule’s school, has seen high dropout rates due to the pandemic. “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.

“Network [coverage] 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.

Umbumbulu, KwaZulu- Natal.

Champion teachers lead and innovate

When schools reopened, she followed up with learners who were chronically absent.  This is important as the longer it takes to get our learners back to class, the less likely they are to return. 

“I always follow up with learners who are absent and make sure to keep track of them,” says Khambule.  She also tries to provide a caring and welcoming space for learners who need extra support or someone to talk to. 

“My learners always find it easy to speak to me.  I feel that if you are not judgemental towards their situation, they feel at ease and talk about everything,” says Khambule.

“This is a problem that can be fixed.  We need communities and schools to work together to conquer the dropout rate,” says Nomfundo Khambule

Change starts now

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.

“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 urgent action.

So, what can we do?

  • Schools can leverage community structures like churches and street committees to urge learners to return to school and to trace those that are unaccounted for;
  • Schools can use community volunteers to track absent learners by going door to door;
  • Schools should have a dedicated team to monitor re-integration efforts;
  • Schools should ensure that their staff members are ready to re-admit and re-orientate learners who have been away from school for a long period.