Mandy Wiener: To school or not to school, this is the guilt laden question

(Photo by Gallo Images/Luba Lesolle)
(Photo by Gallo Images/Luba Lesolle)

In these trying times when confusion, anxiety and doubt abound, whatever decision we each make as parents, we will still feel guilty about it because we are scared. Making this decision is hard but you have to make it for yourself, based on the research you trust and weighing up all the aspects that feed into it.

I was not born to be a teacher. And I’m not a particularly good one either. But for the last two months, I have been forced into this role by circumstance. For several hours each day, I’m running the classroom in my home, managing Zoom lessons, worksheets, science experiments and various other activities.

It has been an exercise in patience but it is not without reward either. It has been an interesting experience witnessing my children's growth as their spongey brains absorb everything they are taught. But it has often been fraught with emotional outbursts and frustrations. Home-schooling is something I and my kids could certainly live without.

However, others have different experiences. It works for many and they have found it hugely nurturing and rewarding. It is their new normal.

Nearly sixty days into lockdown and we as parents are now faced with an enormous decision to make on behalf of our children and our families. As of this week, school management teams are back at work, preparing the ground for the return to class of students. On 1 June, learners in Grades 7 and 12 will return to their schools and so begins the phased process of reintegrating children.

Both the Minister of Education Angie Motshekga and the President have made it clear that as parents, we can choose to keep our children at home if we feel it is unsafe for them to return to school. However, we need to register them for homeschooling.

In other words, the government is not making this decision on our behalf. It is giving us the option and the final call rests with us as parents.

Across the globe, parents are wrestling with this decision and its implications.

If we send our children back to school and they get sick, we will feel guilty. If they carry the illness and a family member catches the virus, we will feel guilty. If our children infect other children with the virus, we will feel guilty. If our children stay at home and fall behind their peers, we will feel guilty. What if this is a defining moment in their development and it will stunt their social and emotional growth forever – that will make us feel guilty too.

All this guilt is deeply rooted in fear of what could happen.

In order to take the emotion out of the decision, let’s look at the science.

A policy document from Dr Nic Spaull, senior research fellow at the Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) group at Stellenbosch University, highlights that children under the age of 10 are the least susceptible to Covid-19 and they should be the first to return to school.

“The brief presents what appears to be a clear and emerging consensus in the international research literature across all countries: Children aged 0-10 years old are considerably less likely than adults to get infected, either from each other or from adults. They are less likely to transmit the virus, even when they are infected. And its extremely rare for them to get severely ill or die from Covid-19.”

Those in favour of returning to school have been pointing to specific research coming out of China, Australia, Netherlands and South Korea amongst others.

READ | The impact of Covid-19 school closures on education in SA

A study by the New South Wales Health’s Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS), examined transmission of the virus in NSW schools and childcare centres between March and mid-April. The report’s preliminary findings were that only one primary school student and one high school student “may have contracted Covid-19 from the initial cases at their schools. No teacher or staff member contracted Covid-19 from any of the initial school cases,” the report found.

In the Netherlands, the RIVM (National Institute for Public Health) found that children play a minor role in the spread of the virus. Research found that it is less common for adults to infect children. ‘When this does happen, research shows that it mainly occurs in the home situation. Patients under 20 years play a much smaller role in the spread than adults and the elderly,’ says the RIVM.

Those eager to return also recite the story of a 9-year-old British Boy who visited the French Alps on holiday in January. The boy was infected by a family friend but only suffered mild symptoms. Despite enjoying ski lessons at a resort, he didn’t transmit the virus to any of the 72 contacts who were tested and his siblings didn’t become infected with Covid-19, although they shared other more common germs.

In a video interview, paediatrician Dr Fiona Kritzinger explains that data suggests children are not super spreaders and that there is no winter without risk.

‘Every winter there is a risk, we see many viral infections in children every winter, so bearing in mind there is a background risk that we live with and that we are comfortable with, I honestly do not believe there is an exceptional high risk and it’s any different to other winters. Where it is possible, the family should weigh up the benefits of going back to school against the harms of staying at home.’ 

But in this polarised, heated debate, there are also experts who support the other side of the argument.

Quoted in the Science Magazine earlier this month, Marco Ajelli, an epidemiologist at the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Trento, Italy said “from the data we have so far, it is very dangerous to open schools and day cares at the moment.” 

“Respiratory viruses really like children,” said Isabella Eckerle, a virologist at Geneva University Hospitals, in the same article. They’re making the point that children excel at catching and sharing germs.

This week I’ve seen many people using the example of France where some schools have reopened but were forced to close again soon after, when positive cases of coronavirus were detected. There have also been surreal photographs of pre-school kids on chalked out squares on playgrounds, in an attempt to maintain social distancing.

The argument from this quarter is that we just don’t know enough about the virus yet to safely be certain that we can place our children at risk.

READ | Find homeschooling sites and information here

As the Director General of the Department of Education said at a press conference last week, there is enough varying science that whatever our beliefs, we can find research to back up whatever argument we want to make.

Then we have to weigh up the psychological, social and emotional effects staying at home is having on our children. Again there are arguments on both sides of this debate.

  • They need to be with other children
  • They need to learn to socialise
  • They can’t learn on screens
  • But how can we expect them to maintain social distancing 
  • It’s impossible to police good hygiene and cleanliness 
  • They will share food and snot.

We have to remember that this debate is also a luxury. It is a privilege to even have a choice. For many parents who have to return to work, they have no alternative child care options and their children must go back to school in order to be in a safe environment.

According to the Education Department, online schooling has reached only around 20% of the school going population during the lockdown period. This means the vast majority of learners are receiving little to no schooling during this time. It’s believed that only around 5-10% of kids will be able to continue distance-learning, because of low internet connectivity rates and access to devices. There are associated behavioural and social problems that arise as a result of this.

Each of our circumstances are different. Each of our children are different. Each of our schools are different. Some children have comorbidities and can’t take the risk. Some teachers fall into the more vulnerable bracket and can’t be expected to place themselves on the frontlines.

But in these trying times when confusion, anxiety and doubt abound, whatever decision we each make as parents, we will still feel guilty about it because we are scared. Making this decision is hard but you have to make it for yourself, based on the research you trust and weighing up all the aspects that feed into it.

While it is important to debate our positions, share ideas and argue the case in favour of whichever side we fall, we should not make others feel negligent or insufficient for whatever they choose to do. We are all wrestling with this dilemma.

We certainly don’t need others to make us feel even worse with their judgment.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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