Education systems around the world have been under intense stress over the last year as the COVID-19 pandemic led to mandated school closures placing 1.5 billion children out of school (87 percent). The strain has been even more acute in Africa, as mainstream remote learning approaches remain out of reach for many rural and low-income communities.
SITA has a long history of supporting education in Africa through the SITA Air Transport Community (ATC) Foundation. Launched in 2014, the ATC foundation invests funds into sustainable programs focused on IT education and addressing the IT and technology skills gap in Africa. Since its inception, it has positively impacted over 85,000 young people in Ethiopia, Uganda, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe – through programs delivered with our charity partners.
Funding COVID-19 education emergency response
Each of the programs supported aligns with several United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, such as Quality Education, Gender Equality, Reduced Inequalities, and Partnerships for the Goals.
One of SITA’s charity partners, PROMOTING EQUALITY IN AFRICAN SCHOOLS (PEAS), is committed to delivering quality secondary education across Africa. PEAS runs non-selective and proactively inclusive schools throughout Zambia and Uganda. Over 50 percent of enrolled students are girls, and helping them develop the confidence and skills they need to pursue their goals is a priority.
SITA’s ATC Foundation had initially committed funds in December 2019 to provide new or upgraded ICT suites in three schools and much-needed server upgrades in a further three schools, along with teacher training to build ICT proficiency. The onset of COVID-19 led to the closure of all schools, with secondary school students forced to remain at home and projects to upgrade the facilities put on hold. Due to these exceptional circumstances, SITA reallocated funding designated for teacher training and server upgrades to contribute to PEAS COVID-19 educational emergency response.
Here are some of the initiatives:
With schools closed, lessons turn to the radio
In rural and low-income communities, the usual tried and tested methods of delivering education are not enough. Countries in Africa face challenges around internet connectivity, access to computers, and even reliable electricity. Remote learning in Africa must think low-tech, learning through traditional mass communication tools such as radio. Radio’s broad reach and relatively low need for technical know-how make for an easier deployment than other methods.
In the period since March 2020, PEAS has become a well-recognized provider of remote education across Uganda and Zambia, partnering with radio stations to broadcast over 600 hours of curriculum-aligned lesson content. At a recent Joint Annual Review event, Zambia’s Permanent Secretary for Technical Services recognized this initiative as exemplary.
Support for students and their caregivers is only a phone call — or SMS away
Mobile communication has grown exponentially in Africa, with a large part of daily reading happening in the form of SMS. These connections offer a great opportunity for education initiatives to distribute study materials and support remote learning.
PEAS has sent over 324,000 SMS messages in Uganda to students and their caregivers focused on safeguarding, COVID-19 education, and positive behavior management. Teachers have also made over 21,660 phone calls to students and their caregivers, enabling tailored support with learning, monitoring student wellbeing, and continued engagement with school updates. Alongside that, PEAS piloted an SMS academic support program which sent seven rounds of practice math questions via SMS in a format accessible to non-smartphones. Text messages including hints and explanations followed the questions, as well as a final answer SMS.
In Zambia, 97 percent of students who received a phone call report to have found it useful, and in Uganda, students who had accessed both SMS and phone calls had ratings for ‘feeling supported’ that were three times as high as those who had not interacted with PEAS’ remote support.
Learning opportunities for all
Low-tech channels are accessible to many, but not all. Despite the widespread adoption of radio and mobile technology, there are still many who cannot access remote learning through those channels.
In Uganda, PEAS printed and distributed over 20,000 learning packs to provide learning opportunities to all its students, including those who could not access the radio broadcasts. Produced by the National Curriculum and Development Centre, almost every child found them useful, with 98 percent planning to use them once they returned to the classroom.
Pivoting teaching to remote access and mitigating the impact of school closures at a difficult time — and challenging circumstances — has required a tremendous amount of work. As of March 2021, PEAS reached 82 percent of students in Zambia and 73 percent in Uganda with its distance learning activities.
Planning a safe return to the classroom
While the distance learning activities proved successful during the crisis, children do the best learning in the classroom. Alongside the remote learning initiative, PEAS directed the SITA ATC Foundation’s funding toward the safe reopening of schools across the network. All schools received cleaning materials, thermometers, handwash, and social distancing markings, with re-opening checklists devised to ensure readiness for government regulations.
Education has been crucial to Africa’s COVID-19 response. The reallocating of the ATC Foundation’s grant enabled PEAS to provide students, parents, teachers, and schools with remote support during the crisis. While the teaching methods used during the last 16 months took on a very low-tech approach at times, SITA remains committed to supporting the highest quality education to address Africa’s IT and technology skills gap. With the systems and infrastructure now in place for students to attend school safely, the initial ICT suites and server upgrade program will recommence in 2021 — installing the latest tools and technology to inspire the next generation of the African workforce.