OPINION | Why I am not ready yet to send my child back to school in Gauteng

A worker sanitises a classroom.
A worker sanitises a classroom.

Everything I read and write about the coronavirus tells me it’s just too soon to be sending our children out into the world to take their chances with Covid-19. And for our teachers, the risks are even higher.

One of the more difficult decisions I as a parent have been forced to make since the outbreak of Covid-19 in South Africa arrived, suddenly and without warning on Thursday last week.

Amid dozens of notifications ranging from e-mails, tweets, missed calls and unread WhatsApps to reminders about scheduled virtual meetings, a small line of text from my daughter's school about Grade R's, 1's and 2's returning to school jolted me out of my workday.

I tapped on the box and suddenly a cold shudder went through me and for a few moments, I reeled with shock.

"Grade R's, 1's and 2's to return to school on Monday, 29 June… " the alert read.

It was Thursday, 25 June.

A letter setting out further detail would follow, the notice promised.

This can't be, I said. I expressed my shock. Mommy agreed.

This is too early, I said. She agreed. To make sure I wasn't completely losing it, I checked the alert again. It said 29 June, not 29 August.

I knew older kids - Grade 7's and 12's, were already back in the saddle - they had to be, with exams looming.

READ | Covid-19: Teacher, pupil infections on the rise in KwaZulu-Natal - Premier Sihle Zikalala

But we didn't wait for the letter from the school. I filled in a form the school had sent to make it clear that we won't be sending her back just yet. I scanned it, e-mailed it to the secretary and then breathed properly for the first time since the notification had landed and caused my blood to run cold.

By any assessment, we are a young, healthy family. My daughter, who had been at "big school" for only a few months before the Covid-19 epidemic effectively shut the country down, has been a picture of good health her whole life.

We are lucky (touch wood) in that we don't often get the flu or colds. (Persistent sinus and allergies don't count, do they?)

We have no co-morbidities. My only bad habit is excessive cigarette smoking and watching documentaries. Needless to say my daughter does not enjoy factual, hour-long tributes to the great British railways, and Mommy only gives me grace to watch them if all other options have been exhausted.

No, my reluctance to allow my daughter to return to school stems from, in my view, common sense.

Naturally, even though we are young and healthy under-30 parents and do not fall into the highest risk categories, I am still concerned over contracting Covid-19.

Too little is known about the long-term effects of the virus on otherwise young, healthy lungs and minds.

Terrifying reports of a Kawasaki-type illness that struck down children the same age as my daughter in New York gave me sleepless nights.

Cytokine storms, the body's over reaction to the virus that results in the immune system effectively attacking healthy cells, made my palms sweat.

Rationality has flown out of the window. I don't care that younger children are less at risk from Covid-19. It's not a chance I am willing to take.

ALSO READ | Teachers using fake doctors' notes to avoid returning to school - Limpopo command council

Some may call me a coward, for being so scared. Let them.

Some may call me over-protective. Let them.

Some may call me silly. Let them.

I would rather over-react and live, than under-react and die, or see my family laid to waste by a disease that we cannot see, cannot really prevent with 100% certainty and can't treat with certainty.

I have one daughter, only the one. And she is irreplaceable, priceless. I will not gamble her chances for living a full, healthy life on a dalliance with a virus that we don't fully understand.

I mentioned that it was common sense that drove me to keep my child at home for another few months or weeks.  But there's more to it.

As an investigative journalist, infectious diseases are not my speciality nor my field of reporting in the normal course of my work.

But in times of national disaster, one must be flexible and tackle reporting that you would otherwise leave to those who know how.

Since March, when the first case was reported, News24's investigations team has been researching and writing extensively about everything from ventilator shortages to deficiencies in the data reported daily by the Department of Health.

My reporting has taught me much over the past months and the current surge in cases in Gauteng has left me in no doubt that opening schools now, is too soon. Maybe mid-July would be better for the little ones. I don't know. Ask me again in mid-July.

The number of Covid-19 cases in Gauteng are increasing at a higher rate than any province has seen since the outbreak began, I reported for News24 over the weekend.

I can tell you that the percentage of children and teens between 0- and 19-years-old testing positive has jumped to 14.8% for young women and 12.7% in young men for the week of 14-20 June.

In comparison, this was 8.3% for young women and 7.4% for young men for the week of 24-30 May.

I could set this all out in painstaking detail, and have to update it all again tomorrow as the latest statement announcing yet more cases lands.

These things alone tell me it's too soon.

We are standing on the beach, watching the tsunami approach, and now I am being asked to send my child deeper into the waves already lapping at our ankles.

No, I think not. I will wait for the tsunami to hit, wait for the floods to subside, help my family weather the storm and emerge - healthy, strong and keen - when the sun shines once more.

In the meantime, the wealth of the internet and teaching materials made available by the school will keep her mind active.

My wonderful better half laughs loudly and often, and in these lockdown months we have grown closer than ever before. Often, Mommy, as I call her, drops pearls of wisdom among our nearly constant jokes and laughter, and rants over our neighbours who are having braais and partying as if Covid-19 didn't exist.  

"We would only be able to spend so much time together as a family if we won the Lotto and didn't have to work anymore," she said to me recently.

How very right Mommy is.

We are not even close to flattening a curve right now. We are not even close to a peak of any sort, anywhere.

This is only the beginning. A time will come when we must go out and face the danger and the risk. But, for now, it is just too soon.

- Kyle Cowan is an investigative journalist at News24

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