The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated South Africa’s far-reaching literacy crisis, with children in the early grades missing up to 60% of the 2020 academic year because of school closures or rotational timetables. Learners from under-resourced areas are most at risk. A new, world-class digital library in Diepsloot, the first of its kind in the township, aims to change the tide and pave the way for similar libraries in other vulnerable areas across the country.
Three recent studies on the impact of COVID-19 on early-grade reading in no-fee schools don’t leave much to the imagination. According to the data, in Grade 4 – when learners transition from learning to read to reading for meaning – as much as 81% of the academic year was lost during the pandemic. Grade 2 learners missed up to 70% of last year’s classroom time, and overall, the ratio of learning to time in school loss stood at an alarming 1:4. This means that, on average, children attended just one day of school a week in 2020 instead of five.
Besides the lost learning opportunities due to missed school days, hundreds of thousands of learners have seen their knowledge base deteriorate. This means they have forgotten what they learned previously. These disruptions come over and above the finding that 78% of Grade 4s couldn’t read for meaning in any language before the pandemic.
“This is devastating news, especially as we celebrated World Book Day and International Literacy Week last month,” says Alef Meulenberg, CEO of youth development non-profit organisation Afrika Tikkun. “Under-resourced schools and communities have been hit the hardest by the loss of valuable school time.”
The situation is unlikely to change soon as many ECD centres are still unable to reopen because of the financial impact of the pandemic, he notes. That is why there is a growing need to encourage and enable all children to learn remotely. For under-resourced schools, however, this is easier said than done. “So many children do not have access to the technology needed to continue learning remotely. Unless we offer solutions that encourage learning to continue beyond the classroom, reduced classroom time will have a lingering impact on our country’s emergent literacy levels, thus future.”
To fast-track change, Afrika Tikkun has implemented a digital library at Afrika Tikkun’s Wings of Life Centre in Diepsloot called OverDrive. “Up until recently, OverDrive was mainly available to children from well-resourced schools, but funding from the Embassy of Lithuania changed this,” Meulenberg says. “This will enable learners from disadvantaged backgrounds to access digital material that would otherwise be unaffordable.
The initiative will enable learners, their parents and partner organisations to borrow from a catalogue of over five thousand eBooks, audiobooks, video learning material and content remotely. “The content is made available in various South African languages, with the book selection linked to the school curriculum,” he says, noting the library will launch on 22 September. Ultimately, it will be made available on all computers at Afrika Tikkun’s other centres.
“We believe education is imperative to any country’s future, and that children should have access to the same opportunities, regardless of where their cradle once stood. Digital libraries are a tool to provide these opportunities,” says Mr. Dainius Junevičius, Ambassador of the Republic of Lithuania in South Africa.
“COVID-19 forced us to adapt all programmes for young people between the ages of three and 29 by offering educational programmes remotely,” says Meulenberg, adding the digital library’s additional benefit is that it gives learners practical computer experience while teaching them how to look for information. “These are important skills for succeeding at school and in the job market. These will give our learners a better chance of escaping their socio-economic circumstances to become economically productive citizens.”
“Covid-19 forced us to adapt all programmes for young people between the ages of three and 29 by offering educational programmes remotely. This means that we had to reskill our staff to become hybrid learning professionals, where part of their learning happens online, significantly reducing the face-to-face classroom-based teaching” says Meulenberg. “We also developed a learning management system that hosts both learning and facilitator facing content, in order to power this new learning strategy” he adds.
The digital library’s additional benefit is that it provides learners with practical computer experience while teaching them how to look for information. These are important skills for succeeding at school and in the job market and this will provide learners with a better chance of escaping their socio-economic circumstances to become economically productive citizens.