Communities of Practice: what have we learnt about implementing intervention research in the time of Covid?

The CSDA’s Communities of Practice(CoP) Project is a multi- and trans-disciplinary collaboration between researchers and practitioners across different sub-fields, including social work, sociology, psychology, education psychology, education, mathematics and language curriculum, mental health, nutrition, primary health care, community nursing, public health and school health care services.

In the CoP study, we target children and their caregivers who receive a Child Support Grant (CSG) in the foundation years of schooling, namely, Grade R and Grade 1.

In initiating the CoP we were interested in understanding, firstly, what constituted the most appropriate cross-sectoral interventions to step up child well-being outcomes, and secondly, how these interventions could be delivered across the health, education and social welfare sectors. We were also interested in evaluating the viability of the CoP approach for strengthening social sector systems to improve child well-being in urban communities.

The project kicked off in 2020 under immensely difficult circumstances due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic presented challenges to everyone but the impact on intervention research of this kind was dramatic and required deft footwork to ensure the project stayed on track.

Below we outline the challenges the project encountered and the innovative solutions the team used to ensure that the project implementation continued as best as possible.

Challenges in accessing schools: Perhaps the most immediate challenge that the project faced was the closure of schools. The National State of Disaster and the associated lock down levels hampered our ability to conduct baseline research in year 1 and we were unable to conduct assessments in the time originally planned. School closures also prevented the CoP team from conducting any intervention work, running programmes, or collecting data at schools and convening local level CoP meetings with teachers during this period. This delayed our work in the schools.


Challenges in accessing children at schools: Covid-19 caused significant delays with accessing children in schools.  Our pilot schools continued to practice rotational learning until early 2022, resulting in the extension of data collection, child assessments and health screening time frames. This rotational learning system also required a lot more logistical co-ordination and support from our school-based social workers to ensure that researchers were able to access all the children participating in the study.


Challenges in using school venues: As a result of Covid-19 social distancing protocols in schools, some schools were unable to provide space to conduct interviews in when schools re-opened as the previously allocated space was being used a classroom space. As a result, classrooms were hired from nearby ECD centres to ensure that interviews could continue.


Unavailability of local government partner: In 2020, our local government project partner (City of Johannesburg) was unable to include their social workers and clinic nurses in the project due to them being redeployed to do COVID-19 crisis work. As these were critical collaborators in our research study, we consulted broadly with our partners, and instead accessed community-based NGOs and the UJ Nursing Department for social workers and nurses. For our 2nd wave of data collection in 2021, we continued to use the UJ Nursing Departments’ preceptor nurses and employed our CoP school based social workers to collect data. This proved to be a creative and effective solution to this challenge and provided an opportunity to the CoP social workers and nurses to work in a multi-disciplinary CoP team. It also provided professional research skills development opportunities for social workers and nurses.


Challenges in engaging the Integrated School Health Programme (ISHP) into the intervention phase of the study. The first wave of data identified children with health risks that constitute potential barriers to learning such as missing vaccinations, difficulties with eyesight, hearing and speech, and obesity/stunting/wasting. The ISHP makes provision for screening and treating school going children with these health risks, however despite a number of attempts, our CoP team were unable to secure a partnership or an agreement with the ISHP in Gauteng for these children to be screened at schools or referred to ISHP facilities for further assistance. To fill this gap our team worked through the City of Johannesburg health clinics to assist children with missing vaccinations, Wits Audiology clinic for hearing and speech screenings, and the UJ Optometry clinic to assist with school-based eyesight screenings.  Children with symptoms of stunting, wasting and obesity remain untreated.


Challenges in teacher development workshops: The CoP intended to run teacher development workshops for teaching mathematics and reading in 2021. However due to increased teaching load as a result of the rotational learning system, these sessions were postponed at the teachers request to April 2022.


Challenges were experienced in contacting participants for the 2nd wave of data collection: To follow up with participants from the 1st wave of data collection, children were given information sheets to take home to their caregivers inviting them into schools for the 2nd round of interviews, not all of these were returned. Field workers followed up with phone calls, and home visits in cases where telephone contact details had changed.

Fieldwork is often unpredictable, the pandemic however created unique challenges and required innovative solutions.

“The key lesson that we can take from this project is the need to remain flexible and adaptable. Despite planning for a wide range of risks, we never anticipated long-term school closures as a result of a pandemic. Our team showed real resilience and agility, often collaborating with key partners and stakeholders to brainstorm and find solutions. It is this growth mindset that ensured that the project has been implemented successfully despite the setbacks the pandemic presented,” says Prof Patel.

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