WATCH: Is it safe to send your kids to school? The experts weigh in
A panel of experts unpacks the pros and cons of sending children back to institutions of learning amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
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News24, in collaboration with Parent24 and Health24, hosted an exclusive Q&A session with a panel of five leading experts with the aim to provide some clarity on whether or not it’s safe for parents to send their children to school.

After much back and forth, and many last minute changes, schools across the country finally reopened their doors to Grade 7 and 12 pupils on 8 June.

Out of 23 675 national schools, 23 100 were ready to open and Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga admitted to having "sleepless nights" about when to reopen South Africa's schools.

This is nothing on the sleepless nights parents, and students too, have had over the last few weeks. With Covid-19 infection rates on the rise parents are worried about whether their kids will bring the virus home.

Many have also raised concerns about what it would be like for the children to return to schools restricted by Covid-19 protection protocols which include wearing masks all day, strict physical distancing and constant sanitising. 

News24 multimedia journalist, Catherine Rice sat down with a panel of experts to unpack the pros and cons of sending children back to institutions of learning amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Watch the recording above and browse some of the highlights below:

Nadeema Musthan, a lecturer at the education faculty of the Nelson Mandela University, says that going back to school doesn't mean the same thing for all children. 

She explains that for some kids it sounds like returning to school will be safe, but from an educational point of view for the children that attend under-resourced schools with teacher shortages, overcrowding and other issues, safety could be an issue.

Musthan says as much as the conversation is around children and their safe return to the classroom, the schooling system lives and dies on the backs of it's teachers. She calls for a focus on teachers and raises concerns about the reopening of schools against a backdrop of an unequal and unjust system.

She points out that the pandemic has added an additional stressor onto an already stressed system.

Professor Eugene Weinberg, a paediatrician and allergist, says yes, it is safe for almost all children to return to school.

He says that aside from a few exceptions, even children with severe asthma or diabetes can safely return to school provided the condition is under control and they're using medication regularly. This is provided the school has the correct safety measures in place.

Professor Weinberg adds that goes without saying that children can only return to a school wearing a mask and where all the school’s essential safety measures to protect them against Covid-19 infection are in place, including especially hand washing facilities and the ability to space children in the classroom.

Children, with extremely few exceptions, he says, appear to have a natural resistance to contracting Covid-19 and they also appear to be less likely to spread this infection.

He says he can understand parent's concerns though, because children are precious. 

Paediatric pulmonologist, Professor Heather Zar agrees, pointing out that so far few children have become severely ill with Covid-19, and very few have died. 

She says it is safe for children to return to school because they have a very low risk of developing illness or severe disease, and are unlikely to widely spread SARS-CoV-2 infection in the context of an epidemic that is going to be around for months. 

The benefits of education and learning, mental health of learners, need to support parents to get back to work and dire need for school feeding schemes, outweigh the low risk of children getting sick from Covid-19 in school, she says.

She points out that a child's risk of dying from influenza is much higher, and that currently there are many more cases of RSV and influenza than Covid-19 in children.

Professor Zar also mentions how the elderly are at risk, and advises that children and grandparents avoid touching, and advises distance and caution, saying that while it it low, there is a risk that children can transmit the virus to grandparents, warning "you do not want to be exposed to Covid-19".  

Psychologist Gerda Kriel says yes, it is safe to send your children to school. It is, however critical that you spend time preparing them for how the new school environment will be. 

Children take their emotional cues from their parents, so she recommends that parents start with themselves and be responsible about what what they are telling their children about the virus and the return to schools.

She says it's important to prepare your younger children for a safe return to school, and suggests tools including storytelling, and familiarising children with the idea of wearing a mask, and their teacher and friends wearing a mask. 

She says parents mustn't underestimate what their children understand about the pandemic, and must start at home with teaching their children Covid-19 safety protocols.

As far as adolescents go, she has seen an increase in depression and anxiety in her practice, and says that parents don't always realise their teen is suffering.

Kriel warns against over-use of social media and screens, and suggests parents keep an eye on their child's sleep patterns and motivation.

Importantly, she says, acknowledge that your teen may be mourning the loss of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like attending the Matric dance or becoming Head Girl. 

She also touches on the economic impact of the lockdown, and how some children won't be returning to their private schools after their parents have suffered job losses, for example.

She says that open communication between children and parents is key to a smooth transition back to school.

Joseph Gerassi, Executive Head at Redhill School in Johannesburg, says that private schools haven't faced the same issues as government schools, and that for the majority of private school students learning carried on at home. 

He mentions how the pandemic has brought to light the issues we have with education in South Africa.

As for kids getting back to school, he says he absolutely thinks it's time because beyond issues of learning, schooling is also about issues of social, mental and emotional well being. 

Gerassi explains that his school consulted with many professionals on all points and made a calculated decision to reopen the entire school.

He describes how psychologists recommended children get back to school as there is a risk of parents having to deal with unintended consequences of keeping children in an unhealthy, unnatural, lockdown for a long time.

He adds that younger kids, especially, learn from social interaction and that online learning isn't nearly as effective for them.

For more details watch the video on YouTube or above.

Does this discussion provide some comfort or are you still concerned about sending your children back?

Let us know. Share your story with Parent24. Anonymous contributions are welcome.

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