Why school re-opening is not the victory parents may think it is

The author, Ms Kullein Ankunda

What you need to know:

Please don’t just send your children back to school for business. Take time to educate yourself as a care-taker.Sit down, and have a conversation with your child before you send them off back to school. Help them and tell them what to expect.

If you asked which memories from my childhood I remember most vividly, they are of times where my parents made me feel safe. I can accurately remember the times as a child when I was scared, shaken, or even in trouble, and my parents swooped in and whisked me to safety. Even from my time as a teenager, I vividly remember the time my mom rushed to the KCCA court in the middle of a working day to bail me out after I had been detained for trespassing. I remember being so grateful that she did not yell at me, and how she immediately got into the motions of getting me released, while I sat there unable to move or talk.
Parents are going to need to change the way they interpret, and react to their children’s (mis)behaviour, specifically with regards to their children’s mental health, especially now that the government has called for the re-opening of schools this month. Are you as a parent aware, and prepared, for how the anxiety of this return to school may manifest in your child? 

A study by Chryssa Bakoula, et al, on how parental stress affects the emotions and behaviour of children up to adolescence shows a “strong relationship” between parental reactions and behavioural problems in childhood and adolescence. As the founder of a Maternal Mental Health organisation, and after conducting numerous interviews with mothers and fathers, it’s clear that parents are going to have to take better care of their own mental health, so that they are able to cater to the changing mental health needs of children.

Issue one of the UNICEF update on the socioeconomic impact of Covid-19 on Children estimates that only one out of every 10 children, from both primary and secondary schools in Uganda, have been accessing the schooling alternatives available, including online schooling. This means that children will deal with issues like returning to the classroom set up, adjusting to a new routine, catching up with others that have been studying online, learning new ways of interacting with their peers as per Covid-19 SOPs, etc. The mental implications of such a situation on a child’s brain are enormous.

It would be unfair to ask teachers to do more. Any additional work that exists to be done - and a lot of it still does - is going to need to fall on parents. It is imperative to develop some “Covid parenting” skills. You are not the same person you were before the pandemic; your children are not either. 

To be sure, we cannot overestimate all the other Covid-related issues that parents are already dealing with, including financial, psychological, and even physical impacts of the pandemic. And yes, as Uganda, we have pre-exiting gaps and needs than could be categorised as more pressing than mental health. However, mental health is the one thing that cuts across and affects every single one of the above-mentioned issues. Sending children back to school with the usual pile of books and a “Dior” metallic suitcase, without preparing them mentally, would be similar to transferring an employee to a new office location and sending them straight to field activities once they arrive, without any sort of orientation or introduction to their new teams, and expecting the same results as from before.
Please don’t just send your children back to school for business. Take time to educate yourself as a care-taker. Sit down, and have a conversation with your child before you send them off back to school. Help them and tell them what to expect. 

Look out for the signs of mental distress in yourself and in your child, especially in the first few days of being back to school. Prioritise your own mental health. Reach out to fellow parents or the professionals. Follow up with the teachers. 
Adjust your usual maneuvers to accommodate empathy and learning. Ensure that your child feels safe with you, in a time when there is so much to feel unsafe about. 

The author, Ms Kullein Ankunda is a Global Health professional, and the founder of Malketha Maternal Services, a maternal/mental health organisation based in Uganda.