Sending children off to school for the first time can cause most parents to feel nervous in any given year. Throw the pandemic into the mix and the situation becomes fraught with anxiety and stress for some.
Families with children returning to school will be familiar with reduced class sizes, social distancing, masks, temperature checks and remote learning, but the Covid-19 classroom could be a confronting space for newbies.
Rizwan Hassan’s son, Rayyan, 3, will begin his education at The Oxford School in Dubai. Rayyan was previously home-schooled, as his parents chose not to send him to nursery.
“The whole dynamic of schooling has changed, and we’ve been told by the school that if there is a surge in cases at the school, or in the UAE, the whole scenario can change again," Hassan says. "The school will go online to control it. We don’t feel prepared for that situation, so I’m a bit anxious.”
Rayyan has also become used to spending a lot of time with his parents at home because Hassan has been working remotely since last March.
“We don’t know how Covid-19 may affect children, so we try to keep social contact to a minimum,” Hassan says. “He’s my first child and he’s starting school, so it’s a mixed bag of emotions.”
Rayyan has been taught to sanitise his hands regularly, and while it’s not compulsory for children younger than 6 to don a mask, Rayyan will be wearing his. One silver lining is that while his parents may be riddled with stress, Rayyan cannot wait to start school. “He is very excited. He wants to win trophies,” Hassan says.
Shazia Naseer, Hassan’s wife, is also feeling the sting of change as her eldest prepares to start school and her husband returns to work at the American University of Sharjah.
While Hassan and Naseer try to wrap their heads around their new situation, the Osbornes are keenly feeling separation anxiety. Nikki Steele Osborne’s son, Archie, 4, will begin school at the Gems American Academy, where his father works as a teacher.
“It’s an emotional time,” says Scottish-born Osborne who stayed at home to look after her only son. “The idea of Archie or my husband getting sick terrifies me as we’re overseas and away from family, [even though] one of the reasons we moved to the UAE from Montenegro last year was for the healthcare system.”
Osborne, a life coach, hasn’t seen her family in the UK for three years. Her husband is American. She says wearing a mask and hand-sanitising has become the norm for her family.
“If you’re prepared to leave home and go to a supermarket, there’s a risk. From a mental health perspective, I believe kids should be with their peers and out of the house. They also get to enjoy the school activities. Teachers are doing an amazing job. I’m confident our school is prepared.”
Parent coach and mother Lisa Sherrington-Boyd, affectionately known as The Potty Queen, urges concerned parents to try not to project their anxiety on to children.
“We need to look at our own emotional regulation. Maintaining a relaxed and positive attitude will be key to help alleviate any anxiety, and I think it’s important to trust our school teams. They will be doing everything they can to make sure the children are safe, happy and achieve their potential.”
Sherrington-Boyd says starting school is a big deal for young children who have previously been home-schooled. “Parents should try not to get into complicated conversations with their children. Keep calm. Keep it simple. We also need to be realistic as this is an unusual time.”
Families can work with first-time pupils on independence skills over the next week and focus on the basics. “Make sure lunch boxes and water bottles open easily and school bags are size-appropriate. Work on things such as peeling a banana and using cutlery. We’re looking for a ‘can-do’ attitude. It’s important that kids see themselves as problem-solvers as they start school,” says Sherrington-Boyd.
One positive outlook is to remember that classrooms provide a social environment, which is beneficial for children.
Twins Vihaan and Avyaan Behura, 4, are preparing to start at The Apple International Community School in Dubai.
“We all have to face the reality of Covid-19, and online classes are not for kids of their age,” says their father, Biswajeet Behura. “We have trained them to social distance, and they always wear their masks. It’s become routine.”
Dipti Bhatt has “mixed emotions” about her daughter Kiara, 4, starting at Safa British School. Bhatt, who gave up her job to look after Kiara, an only child, enrolled her in a nursery last November, when class numbers were reduced and bubbles imposed. Even so, Bhatt would give Kiara a shower every day after she got home.
“That was me taking extra precautions,” says Bhatt, who has been updated by the school that a mask will be compulsory for all pupils. “I did hope she would not have to wear one in school, even though she wears a mask if we go to a mall.”
Dr Mahassen Dham Jallad, a paediatrician at Saudi German Clinic, advises parents to accept that times have changed, and that getting children ready for school involves more than simply shopping for classroom supplies and new clothes. Health and safety are now the biggest concerns, Jallad says.
“For those parents who are apprehensive about sending their child to school in person, know that there are plenty of steps we can take to ensure children are protected.”
Here are some of Jallad's top tips
- Teach your child how to thoroughly wash and sanitise their hands. Hands should be washed with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Parents of young children can teach them hand-washing songs such as Happy Birthday or The Alphabet Song to time their task.
- Teach them to always keep their masks on correctly, as instructed.
- Discourage the sharing and trading of food with other children. To avoid this, ensure their lunch boxes are filled with snacks they enjoy.
- Remind them to always respect the rules of social distancing.
- Consider driving your child to school instead of sending them on the bus, if possible.
- Outdoor after-school activities are a safe way to keep the family active, especially as the weather improves. This will have a positive impact on their mental and physical health.