Back To School After CB: Are We Parents Ready?

In this topsy-turvy coronavirus world, school — once the safest place on earth — has become a potential danger zone. Are Singaporean families ready to let their children return to school from June 2?

Sadly, where the coronavirus is concerned, parents don’t have all the answers. In fact, no one does. And even among parents, there are wildly differing opinions on whether schools should be reopened in June.

“They should allow students back at a later stage. If they want students to go back on June 2, then lift the Covid-19 ‘circuit breaker’ earlier. We need to see the effects of lifting the ‘circuit breaker’ before children go back, not concurrently as they go back… It is evident that graduation and grades matter more than lives,” says a concerned KSP member.

Those who embrace the idea of society reopening will find it easier to accept that there is no foolproof approach to regaining a semblance of normalcy. (Note: even a vaccine may not be 100% effective against the coronavirus.)

As another member of our community points out:

“It’s all a question of balancing risks. To reduce the spread to totally nil, the ideal would be to separate each individual completely with no contact with anyone else, just in case, but then who would import, sell, and cook our food; work in hospitals; and provide transport and other essential services? To protect all kids totally, the kids themselves should be isolated as well, without contact with parents, relatives, teachers, and friends. But is that worth the mental or emotional fallout, the loss of education, and more?”

Singapore’s education minister Ong Ye Kung has said that “unless there are specific concerns arising from medical conditions, [schools] cannot make attending school voluntary.” His reassurance to parents is that schools have procedures in place to keep students safe, and that by “working together, exercising personal responsibility, plus maintaining high levels of personal hygiene and environmental cleanliness, our children can return to school in a safe manner.”

Still feeling anxious about your children heading back to school, especially if they haven’t stepped out of the home in two months? Find out how you and your family can put your minds at ease.

Arm Yourself With Information

“Information helps to reduce fear and anxiety. Get accurate information, and share with your child the changes that will take place when school reopens. Talk through the various measures that will be taken, and help your child to understand why these measures are being taken. This will help your child to feel more assured, and also increase compliance with the precautionary measures,” says Viriya Community Services executive director Evelyn Lai, who has a counselling background. “Help your child prepare early for school to prevent a last-minute rush or feelings of being unprepared, which can exacerbate any anxieties about returning to school.”

For younger children, if you haven’t already spoken to them in detail about Covid-19, you can download the e-book “Coronavirus: A Book For Children” for free. (Free Kindle and Audible editions available here.) Produced in collaboration with health professionals, the book can help to answer children’s questions, such as:

  • What is the coronavirus?
  • How do you catch the coronavirus?
  • What happens if you catch the coronavirus?
  • Why are people worried about catching the coronavirus?
  • Is there a cure for the coronavirus?
  • Why are some places we normally go to closed?
  • What can I do to help?
  • What’s going to happen next?

Parents, you’re probably already keeping up with Covid-19 developments, especially research that is relevant to children. It’s important to be well-informed, but try to focus on positive news: for now, the general consensus is that children (above the age of one) who contract Covid-19 are less likely to experience symptoms, compared to adults.

Have time to spare? Learn about a trauma-informed approach to returning to school — to better prepare kids for life in a world that feels unsafe.

Practise “Safe” Habits At Home

“During the ‘circuit breaker’ period, I’ve used the time to instill the importance of hand washing even after the smallest duties, for example, washing your hands after you close the gate or check the letter box,” says preschool educator Nadia Cheong, whose two sons are in primary school. “As long as they are outdoors and participating in an activity that involves others, washing their hands is a must. Also, always sneeze or cough into your elbows. Because my nagging has been reiterated daily, it’s been ingrained into my sons that these are the new social norms.”

Play A Game Of “Covid Police”

“I’ve also tasked my boys to be the ‘Covid police’ whenever we’ve had short trips to the grocery store and so on, to ‘catch’ friends — i.e. kids their age who aren’t masked, who are standing too closely to them, or not keeping up with good hygiene practices — and give a gentle reminder to them about safe distancing,” adds Nadia. “I believe that reminders between children and their friends are key, because children view feedback from their peers in high regard.”

Help Children Look Forward To School

It will be hard to adjust to school life if one has spent the past two months at home enjoying the unexpected perks of the lockdown, such as staying up all night, waking up late, and extra screen time. “On some days, I try to make staying home seem boring,” says a school counsellor and mother of two primary schoolers. “For instance, I might say ‘no’ to screen time, so that my kids can be creative and resourceful in engaging themselves. I don’t want my kids to think that staying home is much better than being in school!”

“It will be easier if children are looking forward to catching up with their friends,” she adds. Many children might have also missed their physical education classes, which you can’t replicate at home, and these are just some of the positives that you can highlight about returning to school.

Other ways to mentally prepare children include having them pack their school bags several days before school reopening, using a calendar to mark the days leading up to school, and saying “When you return to school…” as opposed to “If you go…”

Mask Or Face Shield? Provide Options

If you’ve bought a variety of reusable masks and are looking to purchase face shields as well (available on e-commerce sites such as Shopee), let your child try everything on to see what they can comfortably use over several hours. They can also practise using their masks or face shields for an hour or two at home, or out at the park. Younger children may opt for shields for greater comfort, but those who are more appearance conscious may prefer masks.

Parents should note that in close range, there will be situations where face shields are not as effective as masks, because face shields don’t create a seal around one’s nose and mouth. But at the end of the day, masks and shields are about minimising risks, not eradicating them completely. Your children’s compliance matters most, so give them the facts, but let them decide.

Own Your Feelings, Good & Bad

By all means, look on the bright side, but at the same time, don’t suppress negative feelings that you or your child might have about returning to school.

“Acknowledge your personal thoughts and feelings. Take actions to address concerns that you can control, and let go of those that you can’t. Do the same with your children,” says Evelyn of Viriya Community Services.

Children may need help to define their feelings: for instance, is your child’s ambivalence or reluctance to return to school due to coronavirus fears, or an aversion towards work and school routines? Without being judgemental, ask questions to help them identify the source of their negative feelings. Share your own experiences, and know that sometimes, while there may not be clear solutions, letting your children freely express themselves can already help them to feel better.

Teach Simple Anxiety-Management Techniques

There is a “3Cs” technique that can help for managing children’s anxieties, says Evelyn:

  1. Catch the thought: what’s causing your child to worry or panic?
  2. Check the thought: is your child’s worry valid, and is it based on facts?
  3. Change the thought: can there be a more positive way to view the situation?

You can use this as a mental framework for your child during this time, as we will continue to face unexpected situations and changes until the coronavirus pandemic runs its course.

The simple act of being able to take slow, deep breaths can also help your child to calm down. Children can place their hands on their bellies while breathing in deeply, holding their breath (have them count to five or more), and breathing out. This helps to regulate breathing and promotes one’s return to a calm state.

For children prone to panic attacks, teach them to cup their hands over their nose and mouth until their breathing is back to normal — this helps to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide lost during hyperventilation, which can cause lightheadedness and confusion.

Not All Anxieties Are Covid-Related

If you are worried about your children’s ability to adjust to school routines, you can start realigning their body clocks by having them revert to their school-term bedtimes, wake-times, and mealtimes the week before school reopens. Tweens and teens may be less willing to comply, but try not to turn preparing for school into a battle.

“Instead of telling your teen what to do and not to do, bring up different school scenarios to find out how they would manage or problem solve in different situations,” says a school counsellor. “Encourage open conversation to understand your teens better.”

From her observations of the teen students who have already been attending school in May, they are not particularly fearful about Covid-19 — in fact, the challenge may lie in getting them to remember and observe social distancing measures.

Instead, your teen’s greatest school concerns may have to do with friendships. With increased online communications during the lockdown, the potential for misunderstandings is high, and your teen may be fretting about unresolved friendship issues. Teens may also feel resentment about not being able to spend time with their friends after school for the moment. These are all matters that you can discuss with your teen, if he or she is willing to open up. Some parents are already working closely with school counsellors and allied educators to support their children, and you too can turn to these professionals for help and advice.

Stressed about your children’s grades? All the normal practices involving active learning and effective revision apply, and you can refer to our tips on motivating your child to set goals, manage his or her studies, and seek help where necessary. For graduating secondary school students, the school’s education and career guidance counsellor can shed light on the available pathways ahead, and what might best suit your child.

Watch Out For School Refusal

If children or teens are reluctant — or flat-out refusing — to attend school, this is known as “school refusal.” Parents should understand that this is not a behavioural issue, but an anxiety issue that requires treatment. Such students may have underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, or they may be experiencing fear due to school bullying, whether online or in real life. Students undergoing transitional changes, such as a death or divorce in the family, may also be reluctant to attend school.

“At times, parents will just say a child is being difficult, and they cannot manage,” says a school counsellor. “They may also delay seeking help from the school or from community services such as family service centres.”

As parents, it is important that you take school refusal seriously, and seek help as soon as possible.

Some comments above were excerpted from a KiasuParents forum thread on local Covid-19 developments. They have been edited for language and clarify.