OPINION | A post Covid-19 trauma-sensitive schools safety plan may be necessary

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Given the trauma some school children will go through during this lockdown period, perhaps what we need is a ‘post Covid-19 trauma-sensitive schools safety plan’, writes Jessica Wasserman.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, and the subsequent lockdown, I have been feeling deeply concerned about the effect that this is having on the school-going children in our country, particularly those living in townships and informal settlements; those who have little or no access to resources or support.

What do they hear, see, think, feel? Are they afraid, hungry, cold? And what is this toxic, unmitigated stress and trauma doing to their brains and bodies? 

Over the past week or so, I have been following closely as decision makers and policy developers in the government’s education sector have been scrambling to produce messy digital online learning programs, and even messier plans to re-open schools, in order to ensure South African children’s access to the CAPS curriculum. 

And I sigh. And I ponder. And I quietly become enraged at the injustice of it all.

And finally, I write a strongly worded opinion piece to the media. Injustice you might ask? I sum this up in one word: Trauma.

We cannot fail to acknowledge the critical impact that trauma has on cognitive development, learning, memory, attention, impulse control and motivation – all the factors required for effective acquisition of the CAPS curriculum; the very curriculum that has been made the sole focus of the Department of Basic Education's (DBE) "draft post Covid-19 lockdown recovery plan". 

This plan essentially prioritises the following: how quickly can we teach the 'core content' to the learners; which subjects are deemed "non-essential" i.e. Life Orientation and Physical Education, both of which ironically, are critical aspects of emotional regulation and cognitive development; and the question of whether to implement longer school days, less/no school holidays, and weekend classes.

The plan screams: We must deliver the curriculum with haste, particularly to those learners who have had no access to Zoom, Google Classroom, YouTube, and other learning platforms; the learners who have been left wondering when they will eat their next meal, or whether they are physically safe in their immediate environment -  there is simply no more time to lose.

Well, the sad truth is that without the acknowledgment and effective implementation of a school safety / trauma-sensitive plan first, we will continue to lose. 

We will continue to lose our learners to fear, anxiety, hopelessness and detachment. And we will continue to lose our educators to burnout, compassion fatigue, fear, and helplessness. So what do our learners need? Safety first. Physical, emotional and psychological safety.

Our learners need to feel safe in their physical surroundings. At school, this means in their classroom, on the playground, and within the entire school building.

They need to feel safe from any imagined or real threat, be it the Covid-19 virus, bullying, or even starvation.

This can only be achieved by careful, intentional planning on behalf of the relevant policy developers, educators and district officials. The human brain cannot absorb, retain or recall information when it is seeking safety. Safety first. Secondly, our learners need Connection.

In order to reach a child at their optimal cognitive level, we need to connect with them. If there is no relationship, there is no connection; and without connection, we will struggle to reach these children at their deeper level of executive functioning - the level required to fully absorb the CAPS curriculum. 

Thirdly, Consistency.

Whether a specific start and end time to each day, whether consistently remaining in class to ensure social distancing, consistency is essential in creating a sense of safety and predictability. It helps to still the mind and regulate emotions, so that higher order thinking and reasoning can take place. 

A key component of working with a traumatised brain is Regulation. This entails breathing exercises, yoga/trauma release exercises and mindfulness practises (which can be integrated into the Physical Education curriculum).

Regulation is practised by both educator and learner in order to create an environment that encourages respect, discipline and self-control; and provides 'space' for accessing the curriculum.

Finally, coping strategies (including those taught through the Life Orientation curriculum, as well as the psycho-social support and interventions offered by circuit-based psychologists and social workers employed by the DBE), are essential practical tools that assist learners with management of emotion and behaviour.

These strategies can be used at school as well as at home. Only once our learners feel safe, connected, regulated, and have strategies to manage the immense uncertainties and deep-rooted trauma unearthed by Covid-19, will they successfully engage with the cognitive demands of the CAPS curriculum. 

So I am left with one burning question: do we really need a 'recovery' plan? Surely we don’t want to 're-cover' the trauma, after its unearthing by Covid-19?

Perhaps now is the time to re-think, re-train, re-empower; to take this opportunity while the system has been disrupted, to pave a new way for our learners and future leaders. Perhaps what we need is a 'post Covid-19 trauma-sensitive schools safety plan'.

- Jessica Wasserman is an educational psychologist specialising in Trauma-Sensitive Schools Practises.

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