The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly severe on South Africa’s learners, with research showing that as many as half a million more children than expected have dropped out of school during the pandemic.

This is according to the results of a recent National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), which found that school dropout may have tripled from 230 000 learners pre-pandemic to approximately 750 000 in May 2021.

This puts the country’s learner dropout rate at the highest it has been in 20 years, with school attendance now at the lowest level it has been during the same period.

Eugene Absolom, director of the Tiger Brands Foundation, notes that disruptions in schooling due to Covid-19 have contributed to reductions in school attendance and learning losses.

“Although remote learning was put forward as a possible solution, the societal inequality and digital divide in South Africa means that remote learning is not a practical substitute for in-person schooling for many learners in the country,” he says.

“Schooling was already characterised by significant levels of inequality and regular disruption, even before the pandemic. Now, more than ever, we need to look for solutions and interventions that will stem the high learner dropout rate.”

Absolom explains that while the Covid-19 pandemic had no significant impact on the matric pass rate in private schools, it affected government schools to varying degrees, with matric pass rates most severely impacted in the North West, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape provinces.

“In the context of the outbreak of the pandemic, we must understand that government’s priorities were focused on prevention, detection and response. However, the secondary impacts of the pandemic were often overlooked, including issues such as children who were orphaned or those who lost their caregivers,” he says.

According to a global study by the National Library of Medicine, one in every 200 South African children had lost a primary caregiver during the pandemic. This is one of the main factors that contributed to a rise in school dropout rates across the country.

Absolom points out that other contributing factors include household poverty and income shocks, household labour and family responsibilities, migration and health problems.

“Orphaned homes, academic struggles and a lack of resources have hit impoverished families hard, many of which could barely survive even before the breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic. These factors have all contributed to learning disruptions and the high learner dropout rate that we are currently seeing.”

Child hunger remains a huge challenge in South Africa, with Stats SA revealing that more than half a million households with children aged five years or younger experienced hunger in 2017. This problem was further exacerbated by the pandemic.

Absolom points out that the closure of schools in March last year also meant that the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) was impacted and could not function at normal capacity, resulting in many of the 9,6-million learners in the programme going without a daily meal.

A National Income Dynamic survey, conducted earlier this year, found that an increase in hunger is one of the biggest contributors to the school dropout rate, with 47% of learners having missed a school meal over the past seven days at the time of the study.

Hence, school nutrition is one of the most effective tools to deal with the issue of learner dropouts and the additional pressure on food security brought about by the pandemic must be prioritised and addressed urgently.

“Much bigger emphasis must be placed on the scaling up of food assistance to people who are hard to reach through the state’s social relief efforts. Tiger Brands Foundation established an in-school breakfast nutrition programme to complement the lunch provided by the Department of Basic Education through the NSNP,” says Absolom.