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ISASA: leading during the COVID-19 pandemic

| October 28, 2020 | 0 Comments

BY LEBOGANG MONTJANE

The year began much like the others during my time at ISASA.

A strong sense of optimism prevailed, and everyone was excited about the new strategic plan and how that would take the organisation forward over the coming five years. No one would have believed that a short two-and-a-half months later, we would be in the grip of a global pandemic and the commencement of a hard lockdown in South Africa that saw most operations shut down, including schools.

A strong sense of disbelief was soon replaced with a growing concern for our member schools and all education in southern Africa. How were independent schools to continue providing a quality education? And, if they could not, how could they remain sustainable and keep their doors open? As each school grappled valiantly with the resources at their disposal to address these pressing concerns, I became increasingly aware of how each individual school’s struggle constituted a growing test that could threaten the health of the entire sector.

Regulatory uncertainty a new reality

As the hard lockdown came to an end, the navigation of the return to school introduced regulatory uncertainty: government coherence of what was permitted changed by the hour, even as our membership clamoured for clarity. Fluctuations in policy became a defining feature of government responses around the world. The media bombarded ISASA with requests for
comment. Some elements seemed intent on making the issue, once again, about the right of independent schools to exist, and painted a picture of the public system in distress, while the independent school sector was impervious to the effects of the pandemic. This perception is in contrast to the disruptions experienced by our membership.

All schools found the impact of the global pandemic to be irrevocably altering and fundamentally difficult. The vast majority of schools did not transition seamlessly to remote learning. Most teachers had to develop the technological knowhow and capacity to create comprehensive online lessons and enrichment opportunities for pupils. Others had to adopt
innovative, more low-tech responses such as printed packs, or transmission of material via SMS or WhatsApp, or on memory sticks for collection. What is clear, irrespective of how long this pandemic remains, is that a hybrid method of educational delivery which includes remote components will remain.

However, what has emerged is that in South Africa, particularly, many independent schools were, and continue to be able to cover the curriculum remotely (similarly for many quintiles four and five public schools). This contrasts heartbreakingly with the reality that most of South Africa’s
children have lost many months of schooling and, until recently,
their one daily nutritional meal. Against this backdrop, ISASA had to advocate for its members’ interests.

Programme of persistent diplomacy

In its advocacy, ISASA is strategic in its decisions over which issues it advances, when and in what manner. Our programme of persistent diplomacy saw us granted an audience with the Minister of Basic Education at short notice to address core issues, such as the right to deviate from the prescribed staggered schedule of which grades would be permitted to return to schools. ISASA has also engaged the departments of Health
and Home Affairs to get assistance for our member schools on the return of their international boarding pupils, and for them to be able to quarantine them at their own facilities. Pandemic related work aside, ISASA continued to encourage provincial education departments to pay subsidies to low-fee independent schools. ISASA’s measured approach to working with the
Department of Basic Education, as our regulator and key stakeholder, has yielded dividends.

Under conditions that have tested all of us, ISASA has demonstrated its leadership and capacity to navigate our membership through difficult times. The communications team worked tirelessly to ensure the timeous dissemination of crucial memoranda that conveyed the ever-changing stream of information relevant to schools amid the pandemic. In response
to the remote learning requirement, and the consternation this caused, an open source COVID-19 portal was designed on our website, which contained resource materials for schools, including health-related guidelines, psychosocial support materials and curricula (much of which was kindly provided by our members). On this same portal, the extensive media engagement with ISASA was documented in real time. A ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ document, legally vetted and regularly updated, was also included to assist our members. ISASA staff members were trained to host regular, large online meetings to discuss issues affecting our membership as they arose. Such a comprehensive platform is a massive undertaking, and we continue to improve and augment the content. I would posit that none of our sister organisations have offered a resource of this nature, scope and quality.

Media matters

In terms of media enquiries, this year has been, undoubtedly, the busiest in my time at ISASA. I have been interviewed by Newzroom Afrika, eNCA, eTV, SABC, SAfm, Radio 702, Power FM, Kaya FM, Radio 786, Lesedi FM, Channel Islam International (CII) Radio, Rapport, The Mercury and the Cape Argus, many of them more than once. Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we conducted multiple radio, television and print interviews on issues as wide-ranging as school selection, the cost of independent education, scholar transport, public misperceptions about independent schooling and the issue of non-refundable enrolment deposits.

Following the arrival of the novel coronavirus on our shores and the resulting closure of schools, the volume of media enquiries grew exponentially, as we were inundated with requests for comment on a number of related issues, such as the perceived danger posed by the virus. Since the first reported case related to an individual who is a parent at one of our schools, ISASA had to learn quickly and share its knowledge on how this new pathogen would affect schooling. It was imperative that ISASA be calm, measured and scientific in guiding the nation on managing learning under pandemic conditions. As the weeks turned into months with the pandemic in full swing, the question turned to how the increasingly challenging economic situation in the country might affect the sustainability of the sector itself, with the question of whether fees were due during the lockdown. Once reopening plans were announced, there was a flurry of interviews around school readiness, safety protocols,
the right to deviate from the government reopening dates and concerns over schools as potential hotbeds of infection. Increasingly, ISASA is seen as a vital voice of independent education and, in all our engagements with the media, we have endeavoured to create a cordial, mutually respectful environment where a greater understanding of the sector can be achieved.

Conversations with our membership continue

Equipping our membership with knowledge about the new occupational health and safety regulations and related employment laws was vital. For the first time in its history, ISASA moved its workshops to an online platform inaugurated by a new workshop entitled, ‘COVID-19: Workplace Matters.’ Now that ISASA had developed the capacity to conceive and deliver relevant training courses expeditiously, it responded swiftly to train our membership on recently revealed sectorial shortcomings.

The latest development has been the renewed public conversation on racism in independent schools. I was asked to participate in a panel discussion for the Restitution Foundation, entitled: ‘#YouSilenceWeAmplify – Institutional and Interpersonal Racism in Western Cape Schools.’ The fact that children in our schools still experience discriminatory types of micro-aggressions more than 25 years after democracy is of grave concern to ISASA. As part of our commitment to inclusivity and the eradication of discrimination, our professional development team worked around the clock to bring a new online workshop on anti-racism to our membership in June.

Considering the data implications of remote instruction and online learning, ISASA was most gratified to have been able to negotiate special pricing on data and devices from South Africa’s largest mobile networks, Vodacom and MTN. Both providers agreed to make standard data available at a reduced cost, as well as URL-linked (site-specific) data at a significantly reduced cost. Several device options are also available from each provider.
ISASA is exploring the possibility of extending this special pricing beyond the lockdown period.

The spirit of batho pele

During this time when everyone has been tested, it is especially important that gratitude be expressed to those who have been responsive to the needs of the independent schooling sector. Minister Motshekga and Director-General Mweli of the Department of Basic Education have been tireless in their dedication to return South Africa’s children back to school as safely as possible under unprecedented conditions. ISASA appreciates the dedication of these public servants, who epitomise the spirit of batho pele (‘people first’).

We also experienced responsiveness from the Gauteng and Western Cape provincial education departments. When independent schools were required to be granted permission to deviate from the enrolment schedule set out in the directions issued under the Disaster Management Act, these provincial education departments worked overtime to issue permits for our
member schools to enrol grades as they deemed fit. When President Ramaphosa claims that his government is an administration that listens, we can attest to the veracity of this representation.

ISASA’s ongoing commitment

It is often said that leading in stable times is difficult enough, but it is in times of crises that leaders prove their mettle. I would argue that ISASA has proved its mettle. As a member-based organisation, ISASA’s ability to adjust its service offering to assist our membership to navigate a global crisis is irrefutable. What this illustrates is that a sound strategic plan and its successful implementation are vital for institutional viability. Membership enquiries have increased significantly during the national lockdown, and those who had doubts regarding ISASA’s usefulness have realised its necessity. As ISASA embarks on a new strategic plan for the 2020–2024 period, it is well placed to build an even better and stronger service orientated organisation of diverse quality schools that advance the dignity of all within them.

I, personally, can assure all our schools of our ongoing commitment to tackle all issues that affect independent schools with tenacity, diplomacy and an unwavering commitment. It is my fervent hope that, through our support and services, ISASA can continue to assist schools to remain vital, sustainable spaces for learning, despite the seemingly relentless onslaught of challenges foisted on them. As the African proverb says, ‘Sesa
feleng sea hlola.’ (‘All things must come to pass.’) COVID-19 is not the exception.

Category: Spring 2020

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