As we brace ourselves to crest the Covid-19 wave, another crisis is taking deep root in our country. This crisis will far outlive the Coronavirus pandemic, and its impact will be devastating.
To date our rightful focus has been on frontline workers and frontline issues including health, public safety, policing, nutrition and aid. Those of us with children or who are involved in education have grown increasingly concerned about this critical space that is not considered a frontline issue.
In South Africa this must be questioned. It demonstrates how misunderstood the role of school principals and educators in our society is. Their roles reach far beyond that of educators.
School principals and their staff are community leaders responsible for the well-being of the whole, and their roles are not limited to the school grounds. Their school is often the heartbeat of an entire community, and they are looked to as custodians of that community. They function as community conduits, communicators, counsellors, feeders, clothers, surrogate parents and first-responders in many emergency situations.
Yet even before this pandemic, our school principals were often overlooked and devalued. Consequently, they were, and still are, stressed, overworked, often depressed and burnt-out. And now they must face the biggest challenge of their career: dealing with anxious and deeply unsettled community members, angry at schools closing and reopening and reclosing and reopening, the prospect of sick learners and educators, not to mention their own loved ones, worries about the academic year not being completed and the massive ramifications of that prospect, as well as worries about their own health. Right now, we are expecting them to withstand the personal and systemic trauma of one of the biggest human catastrophes of this generation, whilst being responsible for the future of our children and the careful balancing of the ecosystem of a school and its community.
Again, should we not be rethinking our definition of what constitutes the “frontline”?
Beyond this, the question must be: how can school principals be expected to lead hundreds, often thousands of children, staff and community members – including, incidentally, all our frontline workers and their children with absolutely no training for an emergency such as this and precious little personal or professional support from government or civil society?
Now, and indeed long into the future, these people will have to deal with a system that is currently on its knees and will be forced into total submission as the next 18–24 months unfold, resources get scarcer, and support dwindles as we focus on “more important issues”.
Of course, I understand that this is a catch-22 of the highest order. How could we realistically be doing things differently? What resources we have are rightly being put into saving lives – and those are stretched to breaking point.
We need to begin looking to the future, a future beyond Covid-19, whilst fighting the fires of the present. Because the future is one in which our children are safe and well, but months of their lives will have been lost, compromised or traumatised because we failed to invest in some of society’s most valuable workers during these Covid-19 months and years.
Leadership and supporting leaders cannot be viewed as a nice-to-have, because leaders save lives. Leadership matters, especially in a crisis and especially in schools and we must urgently find the resources and invest in supporting, capacitating and energising school leaders for this fight. We can, and we must work together – government, business and civil society – to mitigate the inevitable fallout in our education system from this disaster. And we must act quickly and decisively because principals and their schools are at breaking point.
As we budget our time, money and energy, we must name educators – and school principals in particular – as key frontline workers who need primary levels of crisis support. They don’t stop the fight because schools close. The principals we work with spend day and night stressing about how they can keep up with the education of their precious charges, our children, with little or no support on-or-offline. As a country we are unwittingly setting in motion the wheels of a secondary crisis that will have untold ramifications for many years to come.
Now that the schools nutrition programme is once again in place and children’s basic needs are being cared for, let us view school principals and their teams as a critical part of our Covid-19 recovery effort.
It is in our hands. We cannot fail them.