The past radio broadcast focused on the challenges related to implementing the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) related to Covid -19 in our schools.  Lauren, a grade 4 teacher, spoke about the wearing of masks as a ‘very unusual’ experience in the school setting, while Tau, a principal from the Free State noted that many learners do not take the new safety protocols seriously at their school. Another teacher spoke about some of the challenges of implementing the SOPs at special needs schools, where some of the learners cannot wear facemasks. We even heard from a lecturer at a TVET college, that older students (and some lecturers too) were not following the safety protocols and wearing facemasks.

Once again, we are reminded that out of all the sectors in the education system, schools have been called upon to make the most changes – and implementing these changes was never going be to easy.

Let’s go back to being in our schools this time last year. No one could ever have imagined that these ‘foreign’ practices (the SOPs) would define school functionality 1 one year later. We refer to this different way of schooling as altered functionality, which has been brought about by disruptive change. With disruptive change, the cause is often external, and the changes are immediate, compulsory, and complex. Disruptive change also affects us at the personal, professional, and organizational levels.

Given the above, we are once again reminded that making changes (like implementing the SOPs) is not a mere technical exercise – it not only involves changes in behavior, but also in beliefs and attitudes. This is what makes change so difficult. Dr. Khumalo was spot on when she said that schools have done “amazingly well” in managing the complex changes and integrating the new practices into the organization. School leaders and teachers have to be commended for their adeptness and resilience in implementing and managing the SOPs, despite the resource and physical constraints many of them have experienced.

Ndumiso, a teacher, called in to share how their school was implementing the SOPs. They made a point of addressing the learners every morning; ensuring they were wearing their masks; and staggering the breaks to allow for smaller groups of learners to take lunch. Ndumiso also mentioned other changes that they made in terms of school functionality. This included making changes to the timetable; extending the school day, and staggering attendance for learners. This is a great example of agency and altered school functionality to enable a focus on teaching and learning.

1We define school functionality as a combination of the organizational structures, policies, practices, processes, interactions and norms of operating at the school that occur on a daily basis. The purpose of school functionality is to enable and support teaching and learning in the school.

In terms of monitoring the implementation of the SOPs at their school, Ndumiso stated, “We can only manage what we can see.” Herein lies an important leadership lesson – during times of crises and uncertainty, leaders lead from the front, they are visible and at the forefront of leading the changes. In addition, these leaders act with integrity – their words and actions are the same, or, to put it differently, what they say can be seen in the actions they take. They lead by the example they set for others to follow.

Dr. Khumalo noted that the evolving science around the pandemic necessitated a change in the SOP guidelines, especially with regard to the insulation and quarantine period, social distancing and the fumigation of the school buildings. Now these changes may sometimes cause confusion and even frustration among staff members and learners, but, as Prof. Metcalfe reminded us, it is important that leaders follow the science during these times and provide the rationale for why the changes are taking place and why they matter. Dr. Khumalo once again urged all of us to practice lifelong learning in this regard – because change is constant, we have to learn all the time.

In pulling together some of the lessons in dealing with the challenges related to the implementation of the SOPs, I want to refer to a recent webinar presentation by Prof. Salim Abdool Karim, who is a clinical infectious diseases epidemiologist and a South African who is world leader in the science of the pandemic.  He spoke about three forms of change that seemed to have characterized South Africa’s response to the pandemic:

  1. Legislated change: This occurred with government’s early response to pandemic and the declaration of a national state of disaster. It involved regulations and rules that mandated change across the economic, social and education sectors.
  2. Individual change: People responded to the legislated change by complying with the rules governing social gatherings, the wearing of masks, curfew times etc. We know this was not easy, and there were many instances of non-compliance, but many individuals made the changes because they understood that it was for their own protection.
  3. Collective change: This is when people make the change for themselves as well as for others. They act interdependently. The wearing of masks, for example, is not only to protect oneself, but also to protect others from being infected. At this level, change becomes a societal responsibility.

So, what relevance might this have for implementing the SOPs in our schools? There are safety non-negotiables that schools have to adhere to.  As leaders consistently provide the rationale for why the SOPs are important and continue to monitor its implementation in their schools, it will eventually become routine practice for the staff members, learners and parents. When this is done within a culture of care and support, everyone in the school will look out for themselves as well as the others. In South Africa we have a word to describe this. It is called Ubuntu, and when we practice it in the current context we can say:

“If I am safe… you are safe. If you are safe… we are safe…”