A New ISASA Member Flourishes in KwaZulu-Natal

The global pandemic has challenged so many schools in South Africa, and indeed led to the closure of many early childhood development (ECD) facilities. At a time when Northlands Primary School could have failed, we came up with a new idea, which we have called the COVID-19 Pivot. We flourished.

The decision to revamp the pre-primary, situated at the bottom end of the Northlands Primary School property, had already been undertaken shortly after the arrival of our new principal in 2018. Alistair Naidu arrived with a passion for education and a vision for change, and set about revolutionising what was an ailing educational institution.

Our pre-primary had a long history of being a nurturing environment for learners entering Northlands Primary School in Grade 000, but, as many other options had opened in the Durban North area, student numbers had dwindled over the years.

Along with dwindling numbers, was a dire need for massive renovation and upliftment, especially to the large playground area that housed some play equipment, but was largely dusty and outdated with little to no sensory stimulus equipment.

Alistair Naidu drove a new vision

What followed was an extensive renovation project. Naidu saw quickly that by attracting quality families who bought into his vision of a different type of education for a modern family right at the beginning of their educational journey, we would be able to build on good foundations as they progressed through to our main school campus.

As 2019 came to an end, we were ready to embrace a new era as Northlands Pre-primary School, melding old school values with new staff members who were driving the change in syllabus in Grade R in a new and exciting direction. They were presenting a syllabus focused on a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) philosophy, based on an unknown future whilst retaining our ethos of an holistic education for the child.

Change had happened at a furious pace and now we were ready to embrace our new era. A targeted marketing campaign, Open Days, and word of mouth were bringing us the families we so needed to bring our vision to life.

Classroom at Northlands Pre-Primary School

Time for big decisions

On 27 March, South Africa entered what was supposed to be a 21-day lock down. At Northlands, we had three days in which to prepare our families for confinement at home with children who would need to be taught and entertained as they fought a multitude of fears – a deadly virus, potential financial stress, and the strain of being confined with their young children for days on end.

Our beautiful new adventure playground lay deserted. Leaves gathered in the newly constructed sandpit and swings swung forlornly. No feet touched the bright Astroturf and no push bikes tore around the adventure playground track. There was no laughter, no joy and definitely no learning.

Work packs were hastily constructed, and movement programmes were planned and implemented via a variety of online videos posted to a YouTube channel. Our dedicated movement specialist was kept on her toes, coming up with new and exciting things to do with our children: children she could not see or hear.

As lockdown started to look like it would stretch far longer, our management team gathered via an online portal to strategise about what to do if parents stopped paying their school fees and classrooms remained empty. The team realised quickly that we needed to do something revolutionary. We needed to embrace technology and all it had to offer in order to survive.

We had only just begun the process of applying for ISASA registration as a pre-primary school and were still essentially a state school with minimal government funding, which had always served the middle to working class communities in and around Durban North.

We had just completed an expensive renovation and nonpayment of school fees was a serious concern. We did not want to lose momentum, so we decided to adjust our sails to go directly into the storm. In one weekend our staff and learners were moved onto an online platform.

For our more senior pupils, we embraced what Microsoft Teams and the Jitsi Meet App had to offer us and began face-to-face lessons – learning through a series of instructional videos and online meetings. Hard lockdown was not a barrier to educating our staff members as they embraced every challenge as an opportunity for growth and so our online programme was born.

Conquering challenges

We began to recognise the toll of isolation on many of our learners. A call was made to allow ‘free’ chat time at the beginning of each school day. Meeting new siblings or introductions to pets or a tour through the lounge started each day anew.

Full time online teaching between 07:30 and 12:30 in the pre-primary school and until 16:00 in the main school became the norm, with over 60 lessons a day taking place across the school. For those families unable to connect, we did our best to assist with check-in via cell phone and work packs that could be collected from the school, as the lockdown levels dropped, but we were still denied access to our classrooms.

Plans to set up dedicated bridging classes for those children who had missed out on face-to-face interaction for weeks, were put in place. Our parents paid their school fees, allowing us to retain almost all of our staff and our children grew and learnt and adapted.

As the danger started to fall away, we sought permission from the education department to start to bring our learners back to school, we faced another challenge – what of those who had co-morbidities and COVID-19 fear? How were we going to accommodate all our families’ requirements?

The ECD sector was allowed to return and we welcomed our littlest charges back into socially distanced classrooms, with each desk housing a small unit for one learner. All their stationery, ‘fiddle boxes’ (containers of toys and other items) and work sheets were housed at their desks.

Anxious parents handed over their children at the gate , and the children once again blew us away with their resilience and adaptability as they now had to learn words and sounds from behind a mask and even an added face shield. Dedicated online classes accommodated those learners not able to return to school and we started the next phase of our journey back in the classroom.

Dr Barney Mthembu visits Northlands Pre-Primary

A visit from Dr Barney Mthembu

News of how we were taking on the challenges of education in an ECD school during a global pandemic reached the ears of the deputy director-general for Curriculum Management and Leadership in the KwaZulu-Natal Education Department, Barney Mthembu, and he requested a meeting with principal Naidu.

He was delighted to see the learners still managing to have an enriched educational experience while wearing their masks. He left saying he could breathe a little easier seeing the work we were doing at Northlands Pre-Primary and Primary School.

The decision to apply for ISASA membership has freed us from many of the constraints placed on us as a state school.It means we can grow our own methods and syllabi from grassroot beginnings. It allows us the ability to choose our families based on our school ethos with the knowledge that they join us because they believe in what we have to offer their children as they start their educational journey.

It will allow us to collaborate and learn from existing members, which facilitates the creation of a richer, more diverse educational offering for our students, benefiting us all.

We look forward to a bright, exciting future, helping our youngest learners achieve and become future stars ready for the daily challenges and changes they will continue toencounter on their educational journey.