Back to school: Don’t ignore kids’ coronavirus anxiety

Food For Mzansi teams up with young entrepreneur for child-friendly covid-19 safety info in 11 languages

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With the first learners due to return to school after the covid-19 lockdown shortly, experts have urged parents to help their children cope with their coronavirus anxiety as the first learners are due to return.

“If parents are anxious about their own children going to school then that anxiety may well be transferred to their kids,” warns Dane Channon, a paediatric psychologist from East London in the Eastern Cape. He believes that parents opting to send their children to school must prepare themselves emotionally before doing so. “Children are adept at picking up stress in their environments.”

Dr Zeinab Hijazi, a mental health and psychosocial support specialist for Unicef, estimates that 99% of the world’s children are currently living with restrictions on movement because of the pandemic. He says, “The stakes could not be higher. If not appropriately addressed, the mental health consequences for a generation of children and young people could far surpass the immediate health and economic impact of covid-19, leaving long-term social and economic consequences in its wake.”

10-year-old Lesedi Ramapuputla from Mooketsi, Limpopo.

Lesedi Ramapuputla, a 10-year-old from a school in Mooketsi, Limpopo, tells Food For Mzansi that she has not left her home since pres. Cyril Ramaphosa first announced that schools would be closed on 18 March 2020, 73 days ago.

“I’m not ready to go to school because I’m scared of the coronavirus. It can catch you without you knowing,” says Lesedi, who lives with her grandfather, Hendrick Ramapuputla. Although it is not necessary, she has even been wearing a facemask and practising social distancing in their own home. “I also don’t want to go back to school. Maybe other kids will be getting close to me while I’m trying to get far away from them.”

Her grandfather has gone to great lengths to educate his family about the severity of the global health crisis. He tells us, “When we speak of the coronavirus it sends shivers down their spine. They cannot play outside. Fortunately for them they are at model C schools (who seem to be better prepared to keep learners safe), so I am comfortable enough to send them back to school.”

‘Teachers are outnumbered’

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Alfred Swartbooi, principal of Ikhwezi Lokusa Primary School in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, believes that despite Motshekga’s insistence many rural schools are not ready to reopen as yet. He tells Food For Mzansi, “Model C schools are ready because their classes are normally very small, and they have the support of parents and the communities.”

Bhekisizwe Mabindisa (12) is a grade 7 learner in Cape Town. Mabindisa admits that he is a germaphobe, and says that he is scared that other children in his class will not be careful enough with their hygiene practices. His biggest fear is that someone will sneeze on him and not cover their mouth like the president said they should. “I have to be back at school on Monday. I am worried if the other kids are sick, they might make me sick.”

Swartbooi adds that teachers are outnumbered. “Teachers will have their hands full because children will lose their masks, exchange masks or even share masks, which is going to be a big problem. Already in rural areas they don’t have enough masks.”

He tells Food For Mzansi that he visited another school in Mthatha where only 10 masks were provided for a school with 24 teachers. How will the children wash their hands or practice the proper hygiene protocol, he asks. “Children and teachers’ lives are being put at risk. Rural schools don’t even have water. Some schools are in the process of getting tanks, but the question here is where they will get water?”

Furthermore, Swartbooi says most teachers will be traveling from far away towns to report for duty which increases the chances of the virus spreading. “I want to understand whether schools will be closed down when covid-19 cases are reported. Home schooling is not an option because many parents in rural areas can’t even read or write their names. How will they help their children?”

Permaculturalist Ludwe Majiza, representing the Eastern Cape Community Action Network (ECCAN), tells Food For Mzansi that many learners and their parents are struggling to grasp the complexities of covid-19 because it is not presented in their mother tongues. ECCAN now reaches more than 200 villages in the province with the assistance of educators and activists.

Going forward, ECCAN will also distribute Food For Mzansi’s covid-19 materials for children in all 11 South African languages. Food For Mzansi co-founder Ivor Price says they have been inundated with requests to help children deal with covid-19 in their own language. “That’s why we have decided to partner with Jan Louwrens, an 11-year-old robot inventor whose range of robot sketches have captured the nation’s imagination.”

Eleven-year-old entrepreneur Jan Louwrens of Baggo Stronetrip has teamed up with Food For Mzansi to provide child-friendly covid-19 safety information in eleven languages.
Eleven-year-old entrepreneur Jan Louwrens of Baggo Stronetrip has teamed up with Food For Mzansi to provide child-friendly covid-19 safety information in eleven languages.

Louwrens, who is the budding entrepreneur behind Baggo Stonetrip, says he is honoured that his robot range has now been turned into a cartoon format for Food For Mzansi called “The story of the Battle of Covid-19 and Captain Stay Safe”.

The cartoon is part of a campaign to support parents who are transitioning their children back to school, with covid-19 safety information made available in 11 local languages, aimed at the little ones. For the next three weeks, a weekly cartoon will be published on the website in all languages, including Afrikaans, Zulu and isiXhosa.

Louwrens, a grade five learner at Paarl Boys’ Primary School, says, “It’s normal to feel a bit scared to go back to school in covid-19, I’m not looking forward to it myself. This is why I made these comics to help kids stay safe.”

How to support your child’s mental health 

According to Anél Kloppers, a child psychologist from Melville in Johannesburg, children have very poor self-awareness and they are also impulsive beings. This adds a lot of pressure on adults to guide them through the pandemic.

Luthando Mbada (10) is a grade 4 learner in Pretoria
Luthando Mbada (10) is a grade 4 learner in Pretoria. He religiously watches the news to make sure he is informed about the rampant virus. Mbada fears that protection in schools might not be sufficient enough to protect him against the virus. “I am mostly scared that I won’t be protected from getting corona when we go back to school.”

For the younger children, Kloppers advises that parents engage them through various forms of play, such as reading books or maybe programmes that captures some of the covid-19 themes. “The internet is quite a lovely resource for game ideas,” she says.

Kloppers says the most crucial aspect is to deliver information that is accurate in a digestible and simple way.

Channon suggest that parents create a space which will allow free-flowing conversations that will give parents answers to how their children are really feeling about going back to school. “Many of the children and adolescents I see are less concerned with the virus than they are with the uncertainty of what school is going to entail. Allowing the space for children to voice their concerns can be beneficial and reduce assumptions about the children’s apprehensions.”

Learners’ behaviour should also be monitored by looking out for significant changes, including increased withdrawal, aggression, irritability, defiance and mood changes. “Children respond to perceived threats in different ways. However, parents would do well to understand that an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal. Therefore, parents can expect some change in their child’s behavior or emotional expression. What is important is that their children have the freedom to access and use supports in their environment to foster resilience.”

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