Learning under lockdown

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Engaging with children and youth in the Lynedoch Valley that do not have access to online learning

With the start of the lockdown at the end of March 2020, the first order of the day nationally was to ensure that business could continue by taking everything online – meetings, workshops, courses, grocery orders and even hardware orders.

Many schools looked into how they could continue to support learner education online, and a whole new world of home-schooling was suddenly created. Apart from adapting to the new reality, parents and children had to coordinate Zoom meeting schedules and domestic bandwidth was the talk of the day. It was pretty spectacular to see just how much can actually be taught online – school work, music lessons and even karate classes.

But as with all crises, those that have access to resources can usually adapt to new ways of doing. On the other hand, those that do not have the means to access needed resources, fall behind or are forgotten about.

During the initial three weeks of the level 5 lockdown, the coordinators of the various educational programmes offered at the Sustainability Institute came together to identify which learners would not be able to access online learning during the lockdown. As a predominantly farming community, this meant most of the children residing in the Lynedoch Valley, and we wanted to ensure that none of them will be left behind.

Engaging with more than 100 learners every week

The nature of the learning approach in the Lynedoch Children’s House (LCH), where the Montessori philosophy is followed, requires some creative intervention from teachers. To ensure that children aged 3 – 6 still receive adequate stimulation, weekly activities are shared with parents either through WhatsApp/Email or as printed sheets that they can do with their little ones at home. These activities include tracing, counting, language, parents reading to children, helping them identify shapes and colours. There are about 20 children that receive ongoing support, and the teachers are busy putting together basic Montessori packs to share with these families as well.

For the primary school learners in the Lynedoch Community School (LCS) and SPARK, weekly age-appropriate activity packs and worksheets were provided together with the weekly food deliveries that have been happening in partnership with Spier Estate since 26 March 2020. Subjects such as Maths, English, Science, History and Xhosa were focused on. We were able to support the 73 learners that reside in the Lynedoch Valley and weekly contact was made with each of these children. Facilitators and teachers were also available via phone if learners or parents needed additional guidance.

Our Youth programme members, all of them in high school, received printed exercises and past examination papers to ensure they could continue to revise work and not fall behind for when school started again. The programme facilitator assisted with printing information for school assignments, which were then delivered to the youth members as needed. In addition, they were assisted via WhatsApp or phone if they needed further explanation on a specific topic. Earlier this year we introduced our youth to an app called Zlato. This platform gives registered users opportunities to complete community-related micro-tasks such as knitting a square, gardening, supporting siblings with academics or other activities that once completed, they earn points for. These points are then converted into vouchers that can be used to purchase airtime, electricity or groceries at Pick n Pay. We now have more than 15 participants with registered profiles on Zlato.

Apart from just focusing on the children’s education, our staff also shared information and techniques for general well-being and health at home. The LCH and LCS teachers did weekly workshops with families on COVID-19 awareness including demonstrations on handwashing, sanitizing and wearing a mask, hygiene and healthy eating habits, routines, movement and the importance of physical education.

Adapting to learning under lockdown

As the teams visited the farms every week, the biggest struggle experienced by both parents and learners was to try and get back into a routine. This, naturally, was difficult as all of us were still trying to make sense of what is happening in the world and how to live with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Parents and children are not used to being at home, together, every day. Keeping the children busy is one of the biggest challenges for many of the parents, and the children also don’t know how to keep busy if they are not in their classrooms where they receive guidance and where there is structure,” shares Colleen Erasmus, the principle of the Lynedoch Children’s House. “We do however receive little videos and pictures from some parents to share what they are doing with their children, which is inspiring to see.”

This sentiment is shared by all parents, and they were very grateful for the educational packs that helped to keep the children occupied. “Parents and guardians were very supportive and grateful for the work sent home for the children to complete. This was also a great way for us to maintain and build better relationships with the children and the parents,” says Jessica Eley, Student Development lead.

The staff members from the three educational programmes have remained committed throughout the lockdown, and many of them needed to become comfortable with new facilitation skills rather quickly to assist the community members. “The whole team has taken it in their stride to do the community workshops and to speak in front of people as it can be daunting speaking in front of people you know. They spend time to prepare for each theme that we focus on, share ideas and overall the entire team has become more confident,” says Colleen.

“Spending so much time together to prepare packs and workshops for the children, allowed our team to really bond and connect on a personal level. Each one of them has stepped up even more, and take ownership to help the children. They enjoy being involved in the planning of activities, and their confidence has grown,” shares Jessica.

For the Youth Programme, the increase in farm visits has helped to strengthen relationships with parents and guardians even more. “The youth have always identified the programme as being a safe space for them, and with us being able to maintain contact and remaining committed to providing support during this time, this was noticed and embedded even stronger with the parents. The value of community was really felt by everyone,” reflects Ashleigh Seals, Youth Programme coordinator.

What we have learned

The dedicated time that we were able to spend with the families on the farms, safely from a distance, has sown new seeds of growth for building stronger relationships with the farm families. We realised again the importance of regular communication, and sharing simple guidance along with the needed support has made all the difference. The weekly family workshops are a great way to build relationships and give this support.

On the other hand, the lockdown has placed a spotlight on the technological disadvantage that children and families in communities such as the Lynedoch Valley still have, due to the existing digital divide. “Our children have so much they can still learn, but this lack of access is putting them behind their peers,” says Jessica.

While we eagerly await the sustained return to our beautiful learning campus here in Lynedoch, we are questioning more deeply the data divide and how our scholars can learn from home as we anticipate waves of lockdown over the remainder of the year, possibly even longer. Barriers to learning go beyond devices and data, to include home literacy and support in a diversity of languages and mediums. We welcome collaborative partnerships to help us overcome these increasingly important barriers to learning, in order to truly leave no child behind.

With the schools slowly opening again from the beginning of June, many of our children have been able to return to school.