The reopening of schools. This is such a contentious issue for parents around the country. I think most of us are fearful, in light of the current pandemic, but also, if I’m honest, I’m also a little excited for my kids to return to school, just for a small sense of normality to return.

I’m more worried about my youngest child’s return to school. Ava is in Grade 4 and she goes to a very small school. They have put a lot of procedures in place and gone the extra mile to ensure that all us parents are comfortable with their plans. Additionally, Ava only has 8 kids in her class, so I’m comfortable with her return next week. But Hannah, Hannah goes to a LARGE school, and even though the Grade 1 return dates have not been confirmed as yet, I am concerned about her.

What The Experts Say

On the 28th May, the South African Paediatric Association (SAPA) presented a webinar on the topic “Children returning to school.”  which included the following panelists:

  • Professor Shabir Madhi , Professor of Vaccinology, Wits University, Johannesburg.
  • Dr Fiona Kritzinger , Paediatric Pulmonologist, Christiaan Barnard Memorial
    Hospital, Cape Town.
  • Dr Moherndran Archary , Paediatric infectious disease specialist, King Edward VIII
    Hospital, Durban.

You can view the full webinar here:

But the gist of the webinar was as follows:

1. SAPA supports the position that children should be returning to school immediately. While it is certain that children face an increased risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection once back at school, the consequence for children will be milder compared to adults. Paediatric Kawasaki-like multisystem inflammatory syndrome is rare.
2. Most children, including those with asthma, allergic conditions and HIV can return to school. Children with severe immunosuppression, uncorrected significant congenital heart conditions, chronic organ failure, chronic severe respiratory disease and severe neurodevelopmental disability should stay at home. Advice from a paediatrician should be sought if there is uncertainty.
3. Schools should undertake measures that are known to reduce pathogen transmission. Schools should provide water, sanitation and waste management facilities and follow environmental cleaning and decontamination procedures. Wherever possible, disinfection measures to clean high traffic areas should be conducted at the start and end of each day and regularly during the course of the day. The focus should be on surfaces that are frequently touched (railings, lunch tables, sports equipment, door and window handles, toys, teaching and learning aids, etc.) Cleaning of the environment should be with soap and water and/or wiping with alcohol or chlorine-based solutions. Safety during school transport requires similar attention.
4. For individual children, measures such as physical distancing (learners at least 1 meter apart), masking, regular handwashing with soap (or sanitiser use, if water is unavailable) should be implemented. The use of decontamination tunnels or spraying of children has no benefit and may be harmful.
5. Where all the above measures are not available, SAPA’s view is that educational activities should nevertheless commence as safely as is possible, while the government expediently attends to addressing any deficiencies.
6. An individual child older than 4 years should be required to wear a cloth face mask to prevent disease transmission. Use of plastic shield masks or other higher safety category masks is unnecessary, although not discouraged. There is no need for children to routinely put on aprons, gloves or other protective gear.
7. Sick learners, teachers and other staff should not go to school. Children who have a fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, or diarrhoea and vomiting should stay at home. Symptom screening should be undertaken at school entry each day. It should, nevertheless, be recognised that most children (and many teachers) will be asymptomatic carriers. There is minimal benefit for routine thermal screening.
8. Teachers should take standard workplace precautions, including physical distancing in staffrooms, to reduce the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Teachers with medical comorbidities or other risk factors for severe COVID-19 should preferably be allowed to participate in lower-risk activities at school, undertake virtual jobs or teach remotely.
8. Children should receive intensive age-appropriate education around the behaviour change
required from them during the first few days back at school, and regularly thereafter.
9. Additional measures such as staggered school starting and ending times and different break schedules should be considered to reduce learner congregation. Extracurricular activities at schools, including sports, should be curtailed until the pandemic is under better control to reduce transmission risk.
10. No nutritional supplements, medication, or other agents prevent COVID-19 disease acquisition or recovery in children.
11. Children who are well but who have an infected household contact should remain at home for 14 days from the onset of the contact’s symptoms. There should be no requirement for children to have a negative SARS-CoV-2 test before being allowed to return to school.
12. Children who have a SARS-CoV-2 infected classroom contact, defined as close contact (less than 1.5 m) with an infected learner or teacher for 15 or more minutes while not wearing a mask should be advised to stay at home for 14 days.
13. If a child develops symptoms of COVID-19 disease, he/she should be tested. If negative, he/she can return to school immediately. If positive, or if no testing is done, the child will have to remain at home for 14 days from the onset of his/her symptoms (see National Institute of Communicable Diseases guidelines).6
14. Children with high-risk individuals at home (such as the elderly) should be advised to reduce contact time with them and do this more safely (e.g. wearing a mask during contact time), with more vigilant attention to home cleansing, and developing a home routine that minimises risk such as limiting the sharing of towels and kitchen utensils.
15. There is no consensus on what constitutes a school outbreak and when a school should be
considered for full or partial closure because of an excessive number of COVID-19 cases. This
situation can be managed by educational authorities in conjunction with public health experts on a case-by-case basis once schools reopen. Entire school closures should be avoided unless necessary. Individual class closure(s) is/are a more practical and sustainable solution.
16. Regular reassessment and evaluation of the situation will be crucial over the forthcoming
months. A routine school monitoring system for COVID-19 infections in learners and staff should be instituted by the DBE.
17. We acknowledge that parental anxiety is not unfounded, with some children at higher risk for severe disease. Parental and caregiver autonomy must be respected. High-risk children and those children whose caregivers elect not to send them to school are as entitled to education and efforts should continue to facilitate this.
These recommendations may, and will, be amended based on emerging and accumulating evidence.

So that’s what the experts have to say, how do you feel about all of that?  I am still anxious about it, but I also had an in-depth discussion with Ava’s neurologist last week about it and she concurs that getting kids back into school as soon as possible, with all safety measures in place, of course, is first prize.

Preparing Our Kids For Their Return

I don’t know how your kids are coping, but guys, my kids are scared and they’re anxious and stressed under the current conditions. So it’s really important that we start preparing them for what to expect when they return, because school, as they know it from before, will not be what they get to experience now.  As an example, Ava’s school has already started requiring them to wear their masks during their Zoom classes in order to start getting them used to wearing the masks.

So much of what they are used to is gone and we need to prepare them to best transition to their new normal. Here is what Naomi Holdt, educational psychologist, advises we do in order to prepare them for their return.

When do your kids go back?

Are you ready for it? Have you started talking to your children about what they can expect? How do your kids feel about their return to school?

Ava goes back next week, Hannah, we don’t know yet. It’s a stressful time for all of us, but we need to openly talk to each other and to our children in order to help everyone cope with the large adjustments.

Photography By Endless Grace for The Front Porch Project.