+27 21 913 2054
+27 11 259 4031


Schools in the Covid-19 crisis: Leadership is the key

“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.”

I wrote these words in August of last year in an opinion piece entitled School Principals a Critical Part of Covid-19 Recovery. In the piece, I advocated for school principals and educators to be classified as frontline workers in the battle against Covid-19.

I argued that principals are conduits into communities tens, often hundreds of thousands strong. As community leaders they are a highly valuable and respected resource, involved at one of the sharpest and most dangerous edges of the South African coalface. If Covid-19 is going to be brought under control in a way that mitigates against massive future fallout within society, then leaders and schools need to be properly equipped as critical weapons in the arsenal against the pandemic.

I suggested that if we do not do this, the opposite will occur; we will see a catastrophic and generationally devastating impact on an already strained education. We will see death, trauma and a resultant crisis in education – all on a massive scale.

I so wish I had been wrong.

Major crisis in classrooms

Weekly, and sometimes daily now, on various WhatsApp groups, I receive news of school principals and educators dying across our country. Outside of the gut-wrenching horror of this human tragedy, it must leave us contemplating how on earth we are going to populate our schools with leaders and our classrooms with educators come the reopening of schools.

As it is, our classrooms are often bursting at the seams. What is to become of our children when their teachers are cut down by this virus? And what of the trauma experienced by the school community as educators fall? How do we address the deepening crisis of depression and related mental health issues now coming to the fore as educators and principals plead for help?

In an article entitled Looming crisis for education department as Covid-19 hits scores of teachers over festive period published on Times Live 28 on December 2020, Department of Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga says: “There is a looming ‘massive problem’ as (the department) loses teachers to Covid-19.

And then a most devastating line from Mhlanga’s Twitter account:

The grieving over these holidays is too much.

Then, in an even more revealing article published just three weeks later in The South African (17 January 2021), entitled Covid-19 vaccine: ‘Worried teachers need clarity on jabs’ – DA we read:

  • Over 1,600 teachers in SA are believed to have succumbed to COVID-19 this year
  • One school in uMgungundlovu, KwaZulu-Natal, has been decimated: 11 teachers, and three admin workers have all passed away.

Under the sub-heading ‘Teacher shortage’ looming,  DBE Director-General Mathanzima Mweli explained that there had been a “tragic demise” amongst the country’s collective of teachers and that the number (of fatalities) in 2020 make for grim reading.

We are not headed for, but are in, a massive crisis in communities and in education. Where, in the next few weeks, do we find 1,600 additional, qualified educators to replace these lives so tragically lost? It is overwhelming. What can be done before hope is lost?

Leadership is the solution

Long before this crisis emerged and exponentially increased their responsibilities for ensuring the well-being of teachers and learners, it was clear that the resourcefulness, problem-solving skills and optimism of school principals are crucial for school and learner outcomes. When adequately capacitated and supported, and energised, principals can inspire and mobilise their management teams, governing bodies and community members to participate in turning schools into the fulcrum around which a functional and healthy community revolves. Just imagine what a massive on-the-ground asset such schools would be in the fight against Covid-19 (or indeed in any crisis), not to mention serving as beacons of educational excellence.

Leading in crisis

So, what leadership support are we giving our school principals to lead in and through the current crisis? And if we agree that their role is vital, which surely no one would argue against, we must immediately advocate for them to be included in the first batch of vaccines, along with their teams.

The only thing that stands between us and a third wave becoming utterly overwhelming over the months and years to come is leadership. This reality must urgently trigger a massive and concerted effort from government, civil society and the business community to support the leadership capabilities of our principals through this crisis. This will look like sustainable partnerships, established quickly, that can share resources; especially experience, skills and knowledge of how to lead in a crisis – but also how to grow as a leader through a crisis.

And what if we were not to waste this crisis? What if we were to honour the lives of the many principals and educators lost to Covid-19 by committing to use this pandemic to develop school leaders who could lead through any crisis – including the ongoing crisis in basic education in South Africa? What if the basic education sector came out on the other side of Covid-19 stronger and more resilient?

We need to stop talking about social compacts and actually do them; knock on the door of a nearby under-resourced school and say: “How can I/my business/my faith-based organisation/my community partner with you and support you as a leader right now? Or better yet – what can we do to support one another? We know that this could be a gamechanger because ordinary South Africans working together always shifts the needle.

Next steps

And finally, we must immediately prioritise teachers and principals as frontline workers and give them all the support afforded to that category of people. If you have a voice in government or in public spaces, please take this up as a most pressing priority. As businesses, trusts and NGOs involved in basic education, we must – even if just for the time being – change our focus from CSI initiatives that focus on infrastructural development at schools – painting classrooms and building libraries – to developing and supporting school leaders who can lead in crisis.

Superman is not coming. It is up to us.

About the author:

Justin Foxton is a freelance writer and a Leadership, Community Development and Transformation consultant. He is Founder and CEO of the Peace Agency and a member of the Partners for Possibility team.