In the last few months, the only question on the lips of my school-going patients has been: “When can we go to school? When can we go out and play and meet our friends?” Having their children return to school in the middle of a raging pandemic has caused quite a panic amongst parents. Some children have managed to attend school for a few days, while most others have had to make do with remote learning.

School is essential for psychosocial development and enables children to grow into capable young adults. Mentally healthy children function well at home, in school, in their communities, and have a greater chance of leading a happy and successful life. Although the lockdown has been hard on us all, it has been especially hard for children who have had to continue their studies virtually.

Fear and anxiety

Isolating at home has proved detrimental to their physical and mental health, further evidencing the need for a return to pre-pandemic school routines. Grief, fear, social isolation, increased screen time and parental fatigue have negatively impacted the mental health of our children. It has become extremely difficult for parents to calm their children’s anxieties because of the stresses and uncertainties in their lives.

It is not unusual for children to experience negative emotions such as fear, sadness, disappointment, anger etc. The crux of the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any end to the pandemic. So, in the current situation, everything has been prolonged and very restrictive, especially for children. Even though vaccines have given us some hope, most of our children are not vaccinated and a large number of adults still remain unvaccinated.

Understandably, many people would prefer not to return to how things were because so much has been lost – many students and families are still recovering from the death of loved ones.

Getting away from computer screens and back to school, meeting friends and engaging in physical activities could make a big difference to some students, even if it is only for a few weeks. Schools must learn to balance the educational and emotional needs of their children, while keeping their students and staff safe during this pandemic.

Previously, every time we thought it was time to send children to school, it was followed by a barrage of cases which prompted the government to shut down schools once again in an attempt to prevent the spread.

How can parents help their children when the whole family is quarantined at home?

It is not easy being a parent during these times, with all this talk about quarantine and social distancing, and relevant information changing constantly.

Taking care of the children

  • It is important that parents look after themselves first. Only then can they look after their children. Parents must remember that they are not being selfish; rather, they are creating a calm and stable environment for the children when they take care of their own health.
  • You need to check in with your children regularly in a calm manner to see how they are doing, especially if they are having classes online.
  • You can set out time to engage children in creative activities, storytelling and board games. These help them express their anxieties and fears in a stable environment. It’s important that adults remain calm and manage their emotions well, as children are very perceptive and pick up emotional cues from parents and teachers.
  • Children and adolescents should be encouraged to reach out to friends or a family member about their feelings and anxieties during this pandemic.
  • If a parent or teacher notices a vast and sudden change in the behaviour of a child that lasts for over a week they should try and seek professional help. In younger children it may be bed-wetting, clinging to parents, excessive thumb-sucking, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite and even withdrawal.
  • Older children may get very aggressive, have nightmares, and poor concentration. Adolescents can exhibit hyperactivity, aggressive behaviour, have eating irregularities or disorders and increased conflicts with parents.

Going back

So, in a nutshell, we need to send our children to school as soon as possible but precautions need to be taken both inside and outside the classroom. Teachers play an important role in furthering learning in this pandemic. It’s important that they are well-equipped with all the facts about the disease as there is a lot of misinformation in the media. Teachers should be encouraged and given priority as far as vaccination is concerned.

Vaccination drives for children 15 and above have already begun. Although, till date, only one vaccine has been approved for this. In parts of the world where children have received two doses of the vaccine, the vaccine efficacy for children over 12 has been nearly 100 per cent against the delta variant.

Social distancing is another effective strategy to mitigate the spread of the virus. The recommendation by the WHO during this pandemic has been six feet. However, this may not be practical in many of our schools and can affect learning. (Especially since we are currently not sure how easily Covid 19 spreads among children.)

Guidelines that matter

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US has issued the following guidelines to curb the spread of COVID-19 once schools reopen:

  • Creating one-way traffic in school corridors where feasible
  • Using outdoor spaces both for teaching, recess and meal times
  • Reducing the number of children in school buses
  • Spacing desks and having them face in one direction
  • Dividing students into groups that keep together during the day
  • Packed lunches as opposed to crowding around in the canteen/dining area
  • The AAP recommends that pre-schoolers be allowed interactive play but older children should stay in groups while remain masked
  • Cloth masks should be made a priority, especially where social distancing is hard to maintain, like the entrance to school
  • Children should carry a few masks with them. They should have at least one spare mask and have a resealable bag where she can place it when not in use
  • The mask should be clearly labelled and parents should practise with their child how to put on and remove the mask
  • The child should be instructed to wash hands before and after touching the mask and also instructed not to share the mask
  • It’s important that the child sees you wear the mask when you go to work or go out
  • Face masks are not recommended for children less than 2 years or a child with breathing problems or children with a condition that would prevent the child from being able to remove the mask without help.

Essential steps

Practise hand-washing at home. Your child should be taught to wash hands for 20 seconds. When hand-washing is not possible, use alcohol-based hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cleaning and disinfecting frequently used surfaces like door knobs, tablets, phones and laptops should be encouraged.

School-going children should be monitored daily for signs of covid: fever, throat irritation, runny nose, body ache, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach ache. If your child develops any of these symptoms, then keep her at home and consult your doctor.

Despite all precautions, be prepared for changing scenarios. Plan ahead for school closures and quarantine.

Saroja Balan is the author of It’s Your Baby: The Indian Parent’s Guide to the First Two Years.