Love in a Time of COVID-19 Snapshots from the Frontline: Interventions, Practices, and Rapid Responses

Special Focus : Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Thoughts and Responses from Education’s Frontline During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership July 06, 2020

For a decade, Symphonia for South Africa (SSA) has mobilized active citizenship, fostered cross-sectoral collaboration, and built social fabric around the critical issues facing South Africa. Our flagship programme Partners for Possibility (PfP) focuses specifically on the country’s education crisis.

PfP is a leadership development programme that partners principals of under-resourced schools with business leaders in co-action and co-learning “thinking partnerships”. Together the partners undertake an immersive and transformative leadership journey—to create a better future for South Africa’s children.

COVID-19 has presented opportunities to PfP because the programme is specifically designed to develop adaptive leadership. The programme enhances resilience and creativity and unleashes the transformational leadership capabilities of both school principals and business leaders, equipping them to become change agents in deeply VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) environments. Our delivery team and current participants have, therefore, been able to rapidly and successfully adapt to the sudden radical change precipitated by the pandemic. 

Additionally, the programme focuses on relationships and support for human beings. We firmly believe that our partners, particularly school principals, have never needed support more, and we are committed to doing whatever is necessary to meet their need.

Our four-fold crisis response has included: 


1. Crisis Management 

When lockdown began, we contacted PfP principals to ascertain their primary concerns. These included: 

  • Food insecurity among learners and their families.
  • Stress, anxiety, and psychological trauma.
  • Challenges with remote learning, particularly where connectivity is limited.


We immediately began identifying and quantifying food needs in PfP school communities and collaborating with food relief organizations to facilitate deliveries to families. To date, over 20,000 food parcels/vouchers have been delivered, with exceptional leadership by PfP principals being key to this.

Simultaneously, SSA CEO, Dr. Louise van Rhyn, produced a series of support tools—focusing on self-care first—for stress reduction, psychological safety, and coping techniques. These have been greatly valued and are influencing how principals support their teams.


2. Critical Needs—Short Term Support and Care

We have focused on ensuring that our partnerships remained connected, supported, and encouraged and have shared many resources on how they can support their teams and make practical and educational resources available to their school communities.

We have worked closely with principals (particularly those lacking experience with technology) to increase their familiarity and comfort with technology, so they can remain connected virtually and benefit from the online support being offered. This has rapidly accelerated their adjustment to unfamiliar technology.

We have shared many valuable resources with schools via A Better Africa (Knowledge Management platform) including COVID-specific information; online learning material, information on team and community support; guidelines for managing food distribution programmes and preparing schools for re-opening. Links to this material have been widely shared using accessible tools, including WhatsApp. 


3. Change Management—Medium-term Response

This crisis also presented a major challenge to PfP because the programme was designed to be high touch. However, we have completely reworked every aspect to enable the entire programme (including 1:1 partnership meetings, formal training, and Community of Practice meetings) to run virtually and maximize the online expertise that our participants are developing.

We have harnessed technology to support and enhance trust and relationships, enable connection, and ensure that partners feel deeply supported. The level of their engagement has been remarkably high and they greatly appreciate the support provided. Principals, in particular, note that it has enabled them to cope and respond in ways they would never have imagined possible. While our business leaders also face unprecedented complexity, they have become profoundly aware of the acute needs within many South African communities.


4. Future Focus—Long Term Response

As well as reworking our programme to deliver it in a social distancing context, we have completely revised our processes for launching new partnerships and have continued engaging with the business community, encouraging them to support education through partnering in the PfP programme. We have been amazed at their positivity.  

Rather than waiting until we could resume the “normal” implementation of PfP, less than six weeks after this crisis began, we have enrolled and launched over 40 new partnerships in regions across South Africa. We have supported the principals to ensure they have the skills needed for virtual engagement, and we regard our role in assisting them to move to technological competence and confidence as perhaps the greatest gift of this period. 

COVID-19 has highlighted the fact that humanity matters. People are capable of great leadership and innovation—and the growing recognition that systems are fragile, but human beings are resilient, will lead us towards a deeper commitment to human-centered education. We are being offered the opportunity to understand that trust, care, and relationships are essential elements in enabling our school leaders, teams, and learners to not just cope, but thrive, in complexity.