COVID-19’s socio-economic impact on vulnerable learners requires an agile response

Submitted by Tshililo Manenzhe  – Ambani

 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected educational systems around the globe, with some 1.6 billion learners locked out of classrooms as lockdown restrictions came into place at the peak of the first wave last year.

However, along with the disruptions to the academic year, school closures have also had far-reaching economic and societal consequences for the most vulnerable, which calls for a more agile response to assist these learners.

“School closures in response to COVID-19 have exposed a multitude of social and economic issues, including food insecurity, with the impact being most severely felt by children from disadvantaged backgrounds,” says Karl Muller, Operations Manager at The Tiger Brands Foundation.

He says the closure of local schools in March last year saw the suspension of the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP), resulting in more than 9.6 million learners, who depend on school meals, having to go without their daily nutrition.

“While the lockdown was key to slowing the spread of the pandemic, it also led to one of the biggest economic declines that South Africa has ever seen, with 2.2 million people losing their jobs. The resultant loss of income severely affected household food security across the country,” he says.

While schools finally reopened on February 15 this year, South Africa finds itself in the midst of the second wave of the pandemic, meaning that uncertainty persists about potential future closures, should the infection rate spike.

“It is obviously non-negotiable that the NSNP continues to run to alleviate child hunger, but service providers to vulnerable groups must also look at restructuring their models and doing things differently,” says Muller.

Muller says vulnerable groups would benefit from a re-structured service or model, even if it is in the short-term, rather than be left to slip further below the poverty line, when programmes such as the NSNP are not active, for instance during school holidays.

He notes the example of The Tiger Brands Foundation, which established an in-school breakfast nutrition programme to complement the lunch provided by the NSNP. The Foundation’s model was rolled out to 101 schools across all nine provinces, touching the lives of more than 74,000 learners per day, but ground to a halt with the suspension of the NSNP.

“Instead, we switched to delivering food hampers last year, which were distributed to learners and their families and included far more than the usual breakfast. In fact, they contain enough food to feed an average family,” says Muller.

“This was a temporary measure, and we have since resumed all other activities associated with the in-school breakfast programme, but it demonstrated the agility and flexibility with which we, as stakeholders, need to act to ensure that our most vulnerable communities remain well-nourished.”

In terms of driving sustainability, the Foundation is also involved in the School Food Gardens Programme, which is an important pillar of the NSNP. Under this initiative, schools are encouraged to establish food gardens from which they obtain fresh produce to supplement the menu, in line with South African Food Based Dietary Guidelines.

“This programme provides learners, teachers and parents with skills to grow their own gardens, contributing towards long-term household food security. These gardens are also used as a teaching and learning resource for learners and to beautify the school environment,” Muller explains.

Furthermore, he notes that the Foundation has also recognised the need to be innovative in its approach to supporting vulnerable communities in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. The Foundation recently included protective masks with their back to school meals for beneficiaries at the start of the school year.

“Our partners, together with the Foundation, ensured that 90 000 masks were delivered to our beneficiaries during their first meal of the school year. While we are elated to have learners back in the classroom, we remain vigilant about their safety as they learn,” he says.

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