Opinion | For Kids at Home, ‘a Small Intervention Makes a Big Difference’

In Botswana, on March 18, the government announced it was closing schools. Over the next 72 hours, an organization called Young 1ove (that’s “love” with a numeral 1 instead of a letter “l,” as in “one love”) that works with the Ministry of Basic Education scrambled to collect phone numbers from students in third, fourth and fifth grades all over the country. Young 1ove’s staff ended up with 7,550 phone numbers — and no plan for what to do with them.

They knew that whatever they did would use phones. The vast majority of Botswanans have no access to the internet, no computer, no smartphone. But most households do have basic mobile phones.

Kids could get classes on Botswana TV and radio while at home. But many students quickly gave them up, or never started. “They think the teachers are too fast for them,” said Marea Bathuleng, whose children are 9 and 10.

Young 1ove asked parents if they wanted to participate in a math program. “At first they were very skeptical — teaching math over the phone?” said Seolebale Elizabeth Tlhalerwa, who coaches students and other Young 1ove facilitators. But 70 percent of parents said yes. The Low-Tech Remote Education program launched on April 27, at a total cost of $50,000.

To measure success, Young 1ove divided families at random into three groups. Some got a weekly bulk text with several equations and a word problem to solve. In another group, students and parents also spent 15 or 20 minutes on speakerphone with a Young 1ove facilitator, who walked the child through the problems. (In the first month, all students got the same problems.) A third, the control group, got nothing.

Seeing their children struggle was a shock for many parents. “Parents didn’t really know the progress of the student,” said Ms. Tlhalerwa. “But when they realized the student couldn’t do addition, they became hands-on.”

The program’s biggest challenge is that cell coverage in rural areas is spotty or nonexistent. Edith Morena, a facilitator, said that another issue was parental patience. “They scold the students if they can’t get what they were supposed to do. Many said they can’t watch the students struggle with something as easy as adding problems.”