Coronavirus: How to make sure kids stay social when school moves online

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It’s back-to-school season, and it feels different than any other year as many schools open at partial capacity with alternating days of attendance to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

With kids spending less time interacting with their peers, parents are concerned for their children’s social development.

“Classes and playgrounds in schools are not just locations, but space that is alive and represents society for the kids,” said Nadim Mohsen, philosophy and cultural studies professor at the Lebanese American University. “It gives them a miniature [view] of what is out there and is the incubator for their social skills’ development. The lack of it is nothing less than dehumanizing them.”

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Schools famously provide kids with an education, but they also provide socialization, and in many cases, mental health support.

In Wuhan, the Chinese province where the virus broke out, more than 2,840 primary and secondary schools reopened earlier this month. In Britain, France, and Spain, hundreds of thousands of children returned to classrooms, though the countries are seeing climbing numbers of virus cases.

However, in the Middle East and North Africa region, countries are adopting a hybrid model. For example, in the United Arab Emirates, some schools reopened briefly but then closed again after there were cases suspected and switched back to the digital classroom.

As teachers and parents balance moving traditional courses online with giving potential distance learning courses, Mohsen shared some tips to keep kids engaged and social at home:

-Parents will have to increase involvement with their children to fill the gap created by virtual school. Parents will need to be creative in engaging with their children as they now have to be teachers and active peers.

-Parents should make the effort to find a closed circle of peers for their children to meet up and spend quality time on a regular basis. One hour of direct interaction between children is worth hours of virtual streaming of information to their ears.

-Ensuring that kids also spend time outdoors is vital to development.

Tectonic shifts in society

“Education over the [inter]net, even if hybrid, goes against whom we are in essence and our very nature: We evolved over tens of millions of years to be social species, and here the children are facing the grim situation of having to grow from a distance and in isolation,” Mohsen told Al Arabiya English.

Egyptian high school students wear protective face masks as they attend the first day of final exams, amid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Cairo, Egypt June 21, 2020. (Reuters)
Egyptian high school students wear protective face masks as they attend the first day of final exams, amid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Cairo, Egypt June 21, 2020. (Reuters)

For many decades, schools have created structured activities and groups for kids to exist within. It’s where many have learned conflict resolution, leadership skills, and cooperation.

Some schools have fully opened under the assumption that coronavirus is a permanent partner to the human ecosystem and are now navigating how to teach with the pandemic ongoing

“Teachers are asking students to be socially distant in the playground, and in the classes, so there is no room and time for socializing as schools are more concerned about keeping the school COVID-19 free,” a teacher told Al Arabiya English.

While much of the world still naively believed things could return to normal by September, mean-ing their kids would be back in the classroom interacting face-to-face, experts and parents now are concerned about how much time their kids are spending in front of the screen.

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“I used to worry about the time my children spend on social media and online games before the pandemic, the figurative ‘jump’ into screens has caused me more concern and distress,” a mother who chose to remain anonymous told Al Arabiya English. “I don’t know how to let them make the most of the increased reliance on screens, while also finding the right balance with other important activities.”

Many parents have had their hands full as they try to work, manage household chores, and now take on the added role of being a teacher.

Dalia Baltaji Choucair, a mother of a 4-year-old, has struggled to help her child transition to the virtual format.

“Children in this age range need in-person adult contact to help them learn, and lots of hands-on, sensory activities,” she told Al Arabiya English, adding that she is finding it particularly hard to manage her own remote work and keeping an eye on her child to make sure she is actively learning.

“At school, they get individualized attention from professionals who are trained in and deeply familiar with their unique ways of thinking, perceiving, and processing,” Nawal Khamis, a special education teacher, told Al Arabiya English.

It’s often been said that there’s more to a child’s education than simply what they learn in the classroom, and this seems especially evident now that the classroom has become a screen.

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