Globally, there have been strong arguments for and against children returning to schools, with both sides citing evidence from other areas of the world where schools have and haven’t been closed, where schools have arguably been delayed or hasty in reopening, where children have had to return at a reduced capacity or not at all, and where social distancing has been a key factor in school re-opening.
There is a sense that, with hindsight, we will be able to look back on decisions made by various countries regarding school closures during the Covid-19 outbreak, and will be able to identify and disseminate information on the best practices with clarity and confidence. With time, we will hopefully have a deeper, richer understanding of the illness, how it is spread as well as both the short- and long-term health impact it has on children.
However, we cannot succumb to paralysis or become so overwhelmed by our own anxieties so as to not make mindful decisions on behalf of our children at this time. As such, we need to take cognisance of the evidence that is available moment by moment, and make mindful choices in the best interest of our children.
At this stage, most reports note that, by and large, children’s health is not as deeply affected by the illness as older adults. Furthermore, as with adults, children who are requiring hospitalisation or who have sadly succumbed to the illness, have other underlying comorbidities. Furthermore, some reports have also indicated that children are not the primary vectors for transmission. It seems that most transmissions occur between adults.
Mindfulness is key
This suggests, that on an individual level, parents need to mindfully evaluate the risk that returning to school will pose for their child. It is valuable to reiterate the idea of mindfulness, and perhaps tolerance. Mindfulness implies that we are aware of not only of information that is in circulation regarding Covid-19, but that we are connected to our own thoughts and anxieties. It is important to not only critically analyse the information which we consume, which inadvertently espouses certain beliefs or doctrines, but to also confront our own beliefs and anxieties.
With this in mind, we need to be aware of what is driving our choices to either keep our children at home or allow them to return to school. As parents, our mindfulness is a way of staying in check and ensuring we act in the best interest of our children, as opposed to being reactive to the anxieties which seem to permeate the ether at present.
There is some sense in the literature that the pandemic has, to some degree, been reduced to statistical data or complex projections of worst-case apocalyptic scenarios. We need to balance these somewhat clinical opinions with a more humanistic approach and be aware that the pandemic is having a real–time effect on the intrapsychic functioning of people. For instance, the frustration felt by many when we perceive others as flagrantly disregarding restrictions actioned by the government. Or how incensed we become when other’s judge our perceived transgressions, which are often due to financial necessity.
There are few who would argue against the initial decisions made by President Cyril Ramaphosa. For many of us, the liberty of speaking up against stringent lockdown policies is borne out of not having the enormity of the decisions resting on our shoulders.
Nevertheless, one needs to pause and consider if this is how we, as adults feel, can we imagine the stifling oppression many children are feeling? Children have little or no agency at the best of times. They are particularly vulnerable to the adults who furnish their world. For children, there is little space to make choices, and their freedoms are inherently limited.
Home-schooling challenges increase
There is a need to acknowledge that for many children, especially those already at risk, lockdown has been deeply traumatic – where trauma can be loosely defined as the damage caused by stress which exceeds a person’s ability to cope with, or integrate the emotions involved in the situation. Whether this trauma is linked to feelings of isolation or, more perversely, to abuse and neglect, it will have an insidious and far reaching consequences which may span a lifetime.
For many children, especially those who are from impoverished or abusive homes, school is a safe space which meets not only their scholastic needs, but also many socioemotional needs. Many children also receive meals via the National School Nutrition Programme, helping meet some of their nutritional needs. With the current economic fallout linked to the pandemic, many homes will be finding it even harder than usual to meet the nutritional needs of their children, further reinforcing the need for schools to open.
It is logical to also note that in homes where the day to day struggles of providing food and sanitation are becoming increasingly more challenging, the opportunities for adequate home-schooling is severely limited. In other words, such households would arguably have little access to the infrastructure to support online learning. Therefore, such children will become even more marginalised due to the prolonged suspension of schools.
Perhaps one of the less apparent consequences of the extracted school closures is the dire impact it will have on disadvantaged learners or children who battle with barriers to learning. A child’s window for learning is limited where the optimal age for learning is finite in many regards. As such, if a child is not afforded the opportunity to learn within the optimal window period, especially during the foundation phase, they may battle to consolidate skills or address gaps in their foundational skills throughout their school career.
There is also a worry that the option of repeating a Grade once schools reopen may be fallacious for many learners. There is already a notable bottle neck and one wonders if an already overwhelmed system would be able to accommodate the increased demand for learners to repeat years.
Online learning leads to fatigue
Offsetting these enormous challenges, is the juxtaposition of the education more privileged South African children receive. For many privileged children, education has continued throughout the lockdown period and many schools have seamlessly transitioned into online learning. This has ensured that the education of such children has continued regardless.
However, having said this, it is important to note that this has not been without challenge. Even in privileged families, there are numerous pressures and children in such homes are in no way immune to the overwhelming feelings associated with school closures. For many families, parents are battling to meet the dual responsibility of ensuring their children receive a sound education while meeting the pressures placed on them by their work commitments.
Additionally, these children who are lucky enough to have access to online learning are floundering. There is a sense that they are in many ways lonely and isolated. There is also a sense that while more privileged schools have placed pressure on teachers to be available to assist and support children (often at the expense of teacher’s boundaries), the demands of remote learning are anxiety provoking and many report finding it difficult to stay abreast of their studies.
It is also worthwhile to note that online or virtual engagements (be it for meetings or school related activities) are stress inducing and can be overwhelming. There is an argument that it is substantially harder to accurately gauge non-verbal communication via online platforms. This is even more apparent for younger children, who seem to be presenting with some degree of fatigue. Indeed, many learners seem to be withdrawing and are reluctant to engage in virtual sessions.
Together, these challenges are often resulting in children becoming overwhelmed, anxious and depressed. This, in and of itself, has a deleterious effect on the child’s ability to learn and grasp new concepts. Indeed, such emotional states, make learning incredibly difficult, creating a vicious circle. Where optimal conditions exist, the question of whether children should return to school is perhaps centred around parent’s own anxieties over the health of their child.
Sadly, there seems to be little evidence to support the notion that the prolonged closure of schools in poorer communities is in the best interest of their children’s psychosocial wellbeing. Indeed, there is a sense that an extension of school closures will only serve to widen the gap between the education afforded to poorer communities and wealthier communities. As with the emotional difficulties many children are facing, these gaps will be insidious and will persist for years to come.
As such, the argument to open schools and allow children back into a space of safety and care is well founded and, in many ways, logical.
Kirstan Puttick Lloyd is an Educational Psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg, South Africa. Puttick Lloyd completed her master’s in Educational Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2010. She completed her internship at the Family Life Centre, where she focussed on family centred psychosocial support and intervention. She is currently in private practice.