The Impact of Covid-19
2020 was a year unlike any other and the Covid-19 virus had a huge impact on our students, our staff, our programme, the institutions where we work and our donors.
At the beginning of the crisis in March, all of our students had to vacate their residences and return home. Face to face classes were suspended indefinitely and all institutions were in the process of converting their academic programme to an online platform. Not surprisingly some institutions, faculties and individual lecturers adapted more quickly than others.
Obviously the ability of students to participate successfully in online learning relies on several factors being in place:
- Having a functioning laptop
- Reliable connectivity
- Access to data / wifi
- Access to electricity to charge devices
- Living in an environment conducive to study
- Basic IT skills
Universities of South Africa (USAf) and the various institutions negotiated with the main telecommunications providers (ie. Vodacom, MTN, Telkom, CellC) to allow zero rated data status for their websites and learning portals and also make data directly available to students.
However, the extent to which this was actually happening for students varied widely. It depended on which institution they were at, which network they were in, the agreement reached (eg. only night use between 12am and 5am), and whether they still needed data to access other relevant documents or information. The institutions and NSFAS were also supplying students with data and where necessary, laptops. Again the effectiveness of the actual implementation of these measures varied.
In April we conducted a comprehensive survey of every REAP student with a view to ascertaining in detail their current circumstances. That included:
- Their home living environment – how many people at home, do they have food/electricity, is there a study space, is it noisy?
- The status of their course – is it continuing, if so using what modalities, are there tests / assignments / exams pending, is the student coping / up to date?
- Their connectivity / access to data / functionality of their laptop.
- Whether they are still receiving their NSFAS allowances.
What emerged was that many students were really struggling to manage at home. Some were living in crowded, noisy and cramped conditions, with a family under severe financial strain – and often pulled into onerous domestic responsibilities. They were anxious about their uncertain academic futures and struggling to adapt to a whole new way of learning which may go on indefinitely. They were also struggling with connectivity and access to data. Whilst REAP provides laptops to all students, some students received their laptops in their first year but had some faults which they were struggling to get repaired during this period. We found that our students actually needed even more reassurance and support than usual during this period. Obviously, none of us know for how long this situation will continue.
Online Platforms have become the new norm and serve as an effective way to connect with students
Out of necessity REAP cancelled all scheduled workshops and camps and adapted our student support model to an entirely virtual modality. After full lockdown was lifted, staff worked primarily remotely from home though attended the office perhaps two days per week. We converted to google classroom/zoom and continue to hold fortnightly group sessions with all students. We recruited tutors (mainly drawn from REAP alumni & senior students) to assist them to manage the transition. These sessions lasted two hours, hosted by our Student Development Advisors, and addressed both academic and psychosocial support issues. However, for this to work effectively, both staff and students needed increased access to data. We tried to assist as many of our students as possible to return to residence or private accommodation where they have a much better study environment and Wifi with reliable connectivity.
We anticipate that moving forward our student support model will be a blend of face to face and virtual interactions. Online platforms are obviously more cost effective, saving on venue hire, catering and transport costs and also mean that we can operate on a national basis – bringing together students from different regions, and also avoiding multiple staff having to duplicate similar material for local delivery. Nonetheless, when circumstances allow, we will still hold some activities and interactions in person.
During 2020 three REAP staff members contracted Covid-19 but thankfully with relatively mild symptoms and all are now fully recovered. We sadly needed to make two part-time staff members redundant due to the changed operating conditions – our Cape Town receptionist Wilma Solomon and Kelebogile Nthaile, our Gauteng programme administrator. Otherwise all staff were retained and indeed were fully occupied.
Some of our donors were also impacted financially by Covid-19, but thankfully, with very few exceptions, this did not affect their level of support in 2020 and all pledges were honoured. Indeed, three donors – Anglo Vaal Industries, Anglo Gold Ashanti and Santam all made additional emergency donations.