/ 29 May 2020

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

Dr Gloria Marsay
Dr Gloria Marsay


This webinar was hosted by the Mail & Guardian and Dr. Reddy’s. It featured General Practitioner Dr Sindi van Zyl; Educational Psychologist Dr Gloria Marsay; Clinical Psychologist Candice Cowan; and Operations Director and Board Member of SADAG, Cassey Chambers.

Covid-19 is a new disease, so there is nothing to fall back onto; we get daily updates on the stats, which create a lot of fear. We know what we need to do to reduce catching the disease, but how do we manage the fear? One thing that may help is to remember that most people who catch it will have mild symptoms, and won’t die.

Our educators are essential service providers, and they need recognition and support. They also need to take care of themselves, and be good role models. If they can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach. Teachers must put their own masks first, then help kids with theirs. The big question and fear is, how we are going to get the learners through the upcoming exams?

Dr Sindi van Zyl

There was a huge change in routine with the March lockdown, and the virus is a big unknown. It’s been really hard for kids to understand and process. There has been some good quality time with parents and kids, but many parents have lost jobs, which creates extra stress. Children have had to learn how to teach themselves, which was a big ask. Now some have to go back to school, with all the safety issues that entails, and so there have been many stressors for children.

To prepare your children, you need to train your children in social distancing, so take them to a public place with a mask on and see how they respond. Make them aware that they will have their temperature taken, etc. Kids adapt, so they will be okay in a couple of weeks. Make sure your kids understand what the new normal is, and ensure they have all the protective equipment they need. Tell your kids that staying in the guidelines will keep them and their family safe.

Parents need to be aware of anxious behaviour and look out for it — we are all feeling uncomfortable. Kids may have symptoms like upset tummies and may be clingy. Talk to your kids about what Covid-19 is and what steps they can take to avoid catching it. Check in with your kids and explore what anxieties they have. Be a role model and share your own anxieties, e.g. from when you went back to work.

Candice Cowan

Children are not adults, so they can’t always verbalise what they are feeling. It’s a big worry for educators how kids are going to cope with wearing masks, which become uncomfortable, so try to supply your kids with masks that are as comfortable as possible, to prevent children touching them constantly. Another issue is, how children will eat with their masks, and that has to be planned for.

Encourage your kids to become involved in fun activities such as art or music or dance, which will allow them to express themselves. “The first priority should not be the curriculum, but focusing on social and emotional skills,” said Dr Gloria Marsay. The skill coming to the fore at the moment is relationship building, above reading and writing and arithmetic. Even if we are physically separated, we need to be socially connected. Have plans that are attainable — structure and routine provide you with security. Parents and teachers can start WhatsApp groups to support each other. Home schooling isn’t easy, especially for parents. Perhas you can find a friend to help you with it. Parents are going to feel a bit guilty here and there, and support is essential to help us all get through this.

We are all in fight and flight mode in this pandemic, as it is a definite threat, so there is worry and excessive worry, which is with us all day. This makes us emotionally reactive and irrational. We must focus on fact-based information, and what we can control, such as wearing the correct gear to minimise the chances of catching Covid-19. If learners are worried, teachers and parents must check in with them and talk to them, and help them to name certain emotions; “naming is taming” with anxiety.

Some parents have decided not to send their kids back to school. It’s best to talk to your friends and relatives and get support, because this is new territory for all of us. We all need to pool our resources, and get through this together as a community. Athol Williams’ book Oaky and the Virus helps children understand what Covid-19 is. Another one is the Unicef book My Hero is You, in which children from different cultures meet and talk about getting ill and how they recovered. Most people do recover, so let’s make our anxieties realistic.

We all have to learn as things proceed and share what we learn on social media; there is a whole village out there.

How do we bring down anxiety levels? As a parent or teacher, first take a breath yourself, then get down to the child’s level and establish what is wrong. Give them some options, such as breathing techniques. Educate them about what is going on in their bodies, such as their heart going faster. Then let them go: don’t linger, give them space to breathe; they can always come back to you.

Cassey Chambers

The kids who are going back to school must take things realistically. They must know that not wearing a mask is not cool. Make sure the masks fit and are comfortable, and perhaps make them interesting, with cartoon characters on them. Masks can be worn the whole day, so don’t worry about that. This is how life is going to be until the pandemic is over.

Global organisation The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) casel.org has put together a framework for social and emotional learning skills. The reality is that anxiety interferes with learning, so that has to be dealt with first. We need to equip our teachers and learners with these skills; worldwide, we are realising this truth. Schools need to make space for debriefing sessions, where teachers can support each other. SADAG is going to start teacher support sessions once weekly, where educators can fill their own cups, enabling them to help other people better.

There are many disappointments for children that have to be dealt with, such as missing matric dances. This is a good opportunity to teach kids that these things happen, and they have to deal with them; such things give them resilience. If they have to repeat, then this must be dealt with; many children may have to repeat, it will be a shared thing. We are all going through a grieving process, for what we used to have.

We need to have active strategies of hope:

  • Attachment: to others who help me;
  • Mastery: what I need to learn to make my situation better.
  • Survival: can I stay calm, do I stay calm, what do I need to do in order to stay calm, where do I get help and my inspiration from?
  • Hope also entails values and beliefs, and how I am going to move forward. “Hope is THE strategy we are going to need to get through this together,” said Marsay.

We have to remember to be kind to each other and ourselves. Connection is the key. Parents must explore their resources and turn to others if they are struggling. SADAG has free online resources for parents. Focus on stuff you can control: eating well, your daily routines and activities that make you feel better. Remember that this is a marathon, or even a relay race.

Parents must watch out for behavioural changes, especially in younger kids. Watch for things that are out of character: if they are social normally but are now withdrawn, have constant physical pains, experience changes in sleep and eating patterns. Going back to school will be anxiety-provoking, but watch that this anxiety doesn’t continue.

Kids: stick to social distancing and washing your hands. Teachers: look after yourselves! If you don’t, you won’t be able to look after anyone else. Collaborate, and remember that this too will pass: through adversity we learn to thrive! Parents: be gentle on yourselves, and be forgiving with your children. Speak to your kids, and give them guidelines.

Resources for Educators

Books explaining Covid-19 to children

Oaky and the Virus (South African) English, isiZulu, Siswati, Afrikaans, Sepedi, Tshivenda, Sesotho, and Italiano

Global Books dealing with Covid you can down load from the net for FREE:

My Hero is You

Coronavirus: A Book for Children or watch it on YouTube

A kids Book about Covid-19

6 books to help your children get through the coronavirus pandemic

HELLO! I am a VIRUS, cousin with the Flu and the Common Cold

Global organisation The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) casel.org has put together a framework for social and emotional learning skills.