Face masks, social distancing inside classrooms, and small groups are the recommendations for returning children to daycare centers and elementary schools.
Martha Álvarez, an academic at the Mexican National Newspaper Archive, describes her daily life as being like a four-ring circus.
Since she began lockdown to prevent Covid-19 infection, she has been working, looking after her children, preparing food, doing housework, helping with her children’s homework, and walking her dog.
In Mexico, there are 20 million boys and girls under the age of nine, one sixth of the total population, according to figures from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) that were released in April.
The stories that have come out of homes since schools closed due to the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection have some things in common: children have lost their routine (both educational and social) and they are adapting to the ‘new normal’.
Their lives will not be the same as before the pandemic because they have to incorporate new hygiene habits into their day and parents must even monitor their mental health.
“In the case of my little boy, Mateo, it’s been very difficult because he fluctuates between being angry and sad. It’s very hard for him to understand why he can’t go out and he suddenly erupts into uncontrollable tantrums,” says Álvarez.
She says five-year-old Mateo sometimes asks his parents and brother to leave him alone.
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Although the school year has already ended and Mexico is in the official vacation period set by the Ministry of Public Education (SEP), finishing classes online for preschool and elementary school children was a challenge for parents, teachers, and students.
They expect the challenges to be even greater when the epidemiological warning level goes green and schools and daycare centers reopen.
“Even though the federal authorities decreed that daycare centers are an essential service, due to the situation experienced worldwide we decided to close our centers so that it would be easier for people to stay at home for as long as possible,” says Adán González, director general of Advenio, which has daycare centers in Monterrey, Guadalajara, and Mexico City.
To support families with caring for their children while parents or guardians go to work, the Advenio centers reopened their doors on June 1, following hygiene and social distancing instructions.
“Covid-19 is here to stay, unfortunately. Hygiene is important: washing hands, applying antibacterial gel; children from the age of two must start using the face mask correctly and it needs to be explained why they have to do so. It is a ‘new normal’ and it’s important that they are able to take care of themselves and those around them,” says González.
Whether at home or at school, it is essential that parents and guardians support children in safe social interactions: even more so when the coronavirus is present and there is not yet a vaccine.
“Although children who get the disease are a very low percentage of the total (worldwide only between 2% and 3% of Covid-19 cases have been pediatric patients), we must be very vigilant in checking for symptoms. Daycare centers generally have entry processes that include a check of physical appearance and the taking of a child’s temperature,” said pediatric specialist Alma Rosa Marroquín, medical director of TecSalud institutes.
Some recommendations from González and Marroquín include maintaining national hygiene requirements, from social distancing within small groups to the early detection of symptoms, so as to avoid infections.
With young children, the process is more difficult since playing with objects and putting them in their mouths is part of their development, but parents and guardians must be vigilant about this behavior.
“It’s risky if there are objects that can be shared between children. In addition to having fewer children per group, nurseries must develop strategies so that children don’t share toys,” says Marroquín.
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These specialists ask parents and guardians to make an effort to ensure that children are calm by modelling responsible behavior.
“School is a place where they go to socialize and interact with other children, not only to nourish themselves intellectually. In many cases, school is the only place where they receive a balanced meal, so all this (the pandemic and the quarantine) has had an impact on their development,” says Diana Gutiérrez, a psychotherapist from the Neurométrics neuroscience clinic.
For Martha Álvarez and her family, the quarantine has tested everyone’s ability to give explanations about the novel coronavirus in a simple way and help the children stay calm as they prepare to return to school.
“I have told them some stories that explain the topic at their level, and they understood it well. Right now, they aren’t scared; but there’s a lot of anxiety about going out (…) and going back to school. Memo (8) says ‘I want to go, I miss my friends and the pool.’ He misses everything and that has been hard,” says Álvarez wistfully.
In order for the return to the ‘new normal’ to be an orderly and safe process, Gutiérrez also recommends that social distancing be continued even on the return to school.
“In Mexico, strategies must be developed to ensure social distancing at recess, in the bathrooms, and at lunchtime because some children share food and that’s a high-risk behavior,” warns the psychotherapist.
For children, preparation for the ‘new normal’ will have to begin during the summer (following current health guidelines) in order for there to be a safe return to school in August, or for the SEP to reinforce its distance learning strategy if the infection outlook is bad.