Domino Servite School (DSS) is situated in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) midlands on Kwasizabantu mission station which is an integral part of the community. It is a rural school that averages 300 learners per annum ranging from Grade RRR to Grade 12.
Domino Servite is at least one-and-a-half hours away from any significant urban hub. The school serves the immediate community with learners from KZN, other parts of South Africa and even a sprinkling from overseas.
Parental involvement is one of the key principles that underpin our code of conduct. The parent body has been an integral part of the school since its founding in 1986, and our fathers, mothers, students and siblings have walked the journey of progress with the school since then.
Over the years we have learned that teaching children without the involvement and support of parents is not effective. Parents must be on board. The school must partner with parents and parents with the school.
Rapid, radical re-alignment
As we know, the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to move from face-to-face learning to blended learning or to purely virtual and distance learning. The teaching and learning process changed radically, and schools and teachers had to react immediately by turning digital tools into educational instruments.
On top of the unprecedented challenges people were already facing, this unfamiliar learning landscape forced families to assume the roles of teachers and facilitators in their children’s education. It also resulted in changes in communication links with teachers and necessitated mind shifts.
The pandemic required that schools find new ways to remain connected with the families of their pupils, and the need to resort to alternative connection methods produced some interesting research findings suggesting that parents are in fact highly motivated to keep in touch with schools if the means of communication helps them to do so.
Researchers based at the Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organisation based in Washington DC, reported that school leaders across the world have realised that: [H]ard-to-reach families were not opposed to engaging with schools; it was just that the schools’ approaches to engagement were getting in the way.
For example, when the government of Himachal Pradesh … pivoted from asking parents to come to schools for meetings to finding multiple ways for schools to come to parents … engagement levels jumped from 20 per cent to 80 per cent in two months.
At DSS we discovered that a foundational educational principle remained unchanged: families play a critical role in teaching-learning processes. They are indisputably one of the main components that guarantee the success or failure of educational systems. And so, as the educational landscape had to change, we had to rethink our engagement with parents.
Maintaining contact with parents was a challenge DSS made an effort to keep parents involved during the pandemic. The information technology (IT) department trained parents to manage Microsoft Teams and to overcome other technical issues. Parents could phone IT support at school to obtain technical help. Where it became apparent that children were not involved, parents were contacted by a dedicated task team to find out what assistance was needed.
Sometimes it meant that a teacher would take a drive to help a parent set up a laptop, at other times it meant advising parents on what data lines to buy and looking out for good laptop deals to share with parents. Staff engaged personally with learners and parents via various digital mediums and one-on-one meetings.
We implemented a well-being programme for the learners during lockdown and thereafter to help them maintain a positive outlook. Among other things this involved daily online assemblies and a ‘Here’s to the heroes’ welcome on their return to the classroom.
However, as we reflected on the school community’s experiences during lockdown and on our communication with parents post-lockdown, we realised that parents would also benefit from a similar well-being programme.
We became aware that parents were overwhelmed with the challenges of retrenchment, loss of income, working from home and managing their children’s educational needs. Some lost family members to the disease and had to manage the trauma of multiple tragedies.
An example of such trauma was when a senior learner stopped communicating with her teachers. When the support staff contacted her, they discovered that she had lost family members to COVID-19, and that her mother was in an intensive care unit fighting for breath.
The learner was alone at home with her siblings, fearfully expecting the worst. Two of the teachers reached out telephonically to the mother, and it was clear that the mother needed the encouragement andcare as much as her child did.
Online schooling was not popular
On the educational front, learners reported a general dislike for online schooling. There was very little structure at home and parents did not, or could not, assist them to organise their day.
Learners reported that they were assigned home chores, required to look after younger siblings (and assist them with their schoolwork), share a device with parents/ siblings and could sometimes only do their schoolwork in the early morning hours as that was when data was most affordable.
In our experience, very few parents were actively involved in assisting their children to cope, possibly because they felt the school was managing it and they only had to provide them with the device and data.
One of the most challenging aspects of communicating with parents during lockdown was that the school did not have an effective way of communicating with all parents at once (as with traditional parents’ meetings). It became a time-consuming exercise for staff, as many parents had to be contacted and assisted individually. Each parent also had a unique set of circumstances and there was no one-size-fits-all solution.
Post pandemic, Domino Servite continues doing the things that worked for us, such as parents’ meetings (some online), communication via web sites, the D6 communication app, e-mail and telephone. We also introduced a bimonthly newsletter, which we continue to maintain.
In a survey conducted in 2021, 97,6% of the parent body reported that they felt their voice would be heard by the school should they wish to raise a concern, and 97% felt that the lines of communication with the school are clear.
Despite these statistics, we have noticed that there has been a significant decline in post-pandemic attendance by the parents of boarders at sporting and other events. The reason could be economic. We know very well that many parents are struggling to make ends meet and the cost of fuel is prohibitive.
Post pandemic, it has become more evident than ever before that parents and schools cannot operate in silos. Strong bridges must be built between parents and schools if we want to equip both our learners and their families for the future.