The Back to School Dilemma for South African Parents

By Dr Rosie Carey

I liked this ‘Back to School’ image because what I would really love right now is a road sign telling me exactly what direction to take… says South African GP Dr Rosie Carey (known as Dr Rosie to patients).

back to school dilemma

Instead, my internal compass resembles one of those old city maps of Granada, with crooked narrow alleyways spreading out in all directions, some curving back on each other and others leading to dead ends.

Before I get any further into this post, let me just make a disclaimer: this is an opinion piece, not medical advice. It is written primarily from the point of view of a mother grappling with the dilemma of whether to send her children back to school next week or not. It is written secondarily as a doctor in response to the multitude of pleas for advice on this topic that I’ve received over the past few days. Lastly, if I’m totally honest, it’s written as a way for me to try to unravel some of the thoughts that are all tied up in knots in my mind at the moment.


The last 60-odd days of homeschooling have been challenging for me. It has become quite obvious that I’m not a natural teacher. It has also become obvious that there lives deep within my psyche a screaming, irrational demon that is awakened from its slumber by certain triggers (notably the following: persistent erasing of deep pencil marks until the page has a hole in it; kicking of one’s brother under the table in order to distract him from working; playing ‘Clash of Clans’ while one is supposed to be watching YouTube videos on the properties of metals; knocking water over onto one’s schoolbook while mucking around instead of concentrating) and that, once awakened, proves more fearful than Smaug and Voldemort combined.

The slightest glimpse of my inner demon can send my entire family running for cover and, while this is not always unwelcome, it’s not particularly the way that I want to raise my children. So the thought of my children returning to school is not an unwelcome one.

There’s also the fact that my practice is in danger of becoming bankrupt unless I start working more, which is impossible while trying to home school my children. One would presume then, that the decision to send my children back to school once school opens again, is a fairly clear-cut one. Sadly, this is not the case.

Arguments for sending my children back to school on 1 June:

1) My demon will be put back to rest without my having to resort to exorcism.

2) I will hopefully be able to salvage my practice (that is presuming that enough other people send their children back to school that people start getting sick again… see the flaw in my argument right there?)

3) As much as my children are very happy with the facts that they can a) sleep late every morning, b) grow their hair, c) finish their work in an hour and spend the rest of the day chilling and d) spend the day in their pyjamas, they should probably start to re-establish some discipline in their lives and also begin to socialise face-to-face (albeit at a distance of 1.5m) rather than on Google Meet, Zoom or Houseparty.

4) We are all most likely going to get COVID or be exposed to it at some time and it’s not going to disappear in the foreseeable future so am I not just delaying the inevitable by not sending them to school?

Arguments for not sending my children back to school on 1 June;

1) We are not sure what the COVID risks are to children. Although a lot of research suggests that children are very low risk and most of the evidence shows that they are unlikely to get seriously ill, there is never any guarantee. What if my child is the 1 in 1000 that has a severe immune reaction and ends up in ICU. How will I forgive myself? The doctor in me knows that this is unlikely, but the reasonable doctor stands little chance against the anxious mother. Likewise we are unsure what the risks of transmission are. Again, evidence suggests that children are low transmitters of the virus, but what if the evidence is wrong? We still don’t have any conclusive answers. I’m also faced with the ethical dilemma of being a doctor (just to throw more confusion into my mix): am I exposing my patients, indirectly, to higher risk by sending my children to school or, vice versa, am I exposing my children’s peers to increased risk because I’m inadvertently bringing germs from my patients home with me?

2) My in-laws are both elderly and at high risk, especially my mother-in-law. If I send my children back to school now, it would be irresponsible to let them see their grandparents in the near future. I’m not sure that school is worth that.

3) I’m lazy. Yup, I admit it. To be brutally honest, I’ve enjoyed the relaxed mornings spent together as a family. I’ve enjoyed not having the morning school rush (that brings out a different demon in me altogether). I’ve relished not having the mad hurry from one extra-mural to the next. And I do think that we’ve benefited as a family from the time we’ve had to spend together. I’m not altogether sure that I’m ready to give that up.

4) My views on education have changed slightly. While I recognise the importance of being disciplined in learning lists of words and times tables etc, I’m not entirely convinced, after spending the past two months practically beating them into my kid’s brains, that this type of education is the right fit for the world that we live in at the moment. There’s a small part of me that can’t help thinking that there must be a better, more interesting and more relevant way to learn. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but it’s bugging me enough for me to have put feelers out.

Of course, these arguments are entirely about me and my little world. They don’t begin to touch on many people’s realities. There are so many other medical and social considerations in the decision: for some people school is a necessary and safe childcare option; many children don’t have access to online or homeschooling and for them going back to school is their only means of being educated; some children have chronic diseases or immune deficiencies that put them at too much risk for going back to school; some families have ‘at risk’ family members living in the family home and sending children back to school would jeopardise their safety.

The list is almost endless. So, here is my advice (although I’m not sure it even qualifies as advice since it doesn’t provide much more clarity than that city map of Granada and I still don’t know whether I’ll be sending my boys back to school next week)…

the decision whether to send your child back to school or not is a deeply personal one that is influenced by a myriad of completely individual factors. You and your family alone can make the decision most suitable for your circumstances. Two things I do know. Firstly, whatever decision you do make, you will still have moments in which you are plagued by doubt that you have made the right decision and secondly, there is no room whatsoever to judge anyone else’s decision.

Good luck (and health) with whichever path you choose.

DR ROSIE CAREY is a mom, wife, doctor, writer and wanna-be ultra-athlete trying to maintain some degree of sanity and waistline during lockdown. Read more of her lockdown diaries here