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Source: Save The Children

It’s March 12, 2020, the announcement has just been made: schools are closing. My children are incredibly excited– for them it’s vacation. I watch them jump for joy without knowing what to think. My mom instinct to organise is already in motion. What does this mean for me… for them… for us? How long will it last? The second term of the school year is not yet over. What about classes? How are they going to finish?

COVID-19 with its share of restrictions, precautions, questions and anxieties, had just been doubled by forced family reorganization. Compared to the majority of children in West and Central Africa who reported that they had learnt very little while at home during the enforced global lockdowns and those who did not have any learning material at home, we were the lucky ones, I can even say super privileged, my children were able to continue their studies, but at a distance.

Despite being locked in at home, we needed to keep up a certain pace. But then boredom, lack of the normalcy that comes with daily life, lack of access to friends and loved ones can compromise the mental health and psychosocial well-being of young children and adolescents whose emotional control and coping skills are underdeveloped. And now in 2021, it’s happening again. Major preparations for psychosocial support for parents, children, or teachers have still not really been thought out or planned for.

The return to school and its impact on the psychosocial well-being of children

The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted the education of millions of children in West and Central Africa. In research conducted by Save the Children on the impact of COVID-19 on children, children reported a lack of support to help them study at home and an increase in household chores due to the closure of schools. Lack of internet access and inability to understand homework also contributed to this situation.

In terms of their psychosocial well-being, the majority of children reported an increase in negative feelings such as sadness, worry, insecurity, boredom, unhappiness, and less hope than before due to school closures, prolonged isolation, lack of access to games and socializing with friends. What’s worse is that children also reported violence at home many said that had no access to protection services.

According to UNICEF, only 7 of the 24 countries in the region were able to reopen their doors for the 2020-2021 school year. In Senegal, four million students have returned to school with a health protocol that is unlikely to be strictly adhered to.

What We’ve Done for a Safe Back to School

Save The Children has developed child safe spaces in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, the central Sahel region where crisis of insecurity, malnutrition, and education have severely impacted the region. These safe spaces known as engage children in recreational activities and psychosocial support. This contributes to the improvement of the well-being of children and provides them with a sense of normalcy, especially for those who are victims of displacement or attack which result in the loss of valuables, the loss of parents, friends, or relatives.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Save the Children has worked closely with the Regional Public Health Directorate to establish a mental health working group in Niger and has delivered hygiene kits to all child safe spaces across the Sahel.

So what can parents and families do?  

  • COVID-19 can affect a child’s mental health and it’s important to show them that it is normal to feel sad, worried, or uncertain during this time, and that it’s okay to be overwhelmed by all this change.  Empathy and support are always good solutions.
  • In addition to paying attention to children’s physical health and learning when they return to school, they should be monitored for signs of stress and anxiety. Some children do not verbalize their emotions, so it is important to watch for the appearance of anxious or aggressive behaviours which could indicate something is wrong. 

What do we want Governments to do?

  • Psychosocial Support should be prioritized by Ministries of Education through the establishment of psychosocial support programs for children, parents and teachers, as appropriate, including addressing the specific needs of girls who are more likely to not return to school.  
  • Prioritise and invest in children and adolescents’ mental health, protection, learning and development during the COVID-19 pandemic and respond to the needs of all vulnerable children by ensuring children are at the heart of response plans and that they provide equitable access to effective, adequately resourced and rights-based protection, education, health and mental health services.