Mauritius: Rishi Nursimulu, founder, Dukesbridge - "I feel gutted that pupils in lower grades CAN only attend school two mornings per week"

interview

We've spent about two-and-a-half months in confinement. What was the effect of that on children in particular?

I believe that children, like most of us, went through ups and downs. The difference is that they often do not know how to express their feelings and the build-up of the frustration comes out through erratic behaviour. At the outset, most children were excited at the idea of a forced holiday. Family board games and faratas, yay! As the lockdown got extended, they realised this was no holiday ‒ no beach outing, no trip to the mall, not even a walk down the road. The realisation of confinement hit hard. Many children got involved in household chores, which was great to see. However, as the weeks went by, the absence of socialisation with peers their own age started weighing on them and on the parents too.

Yes, the parents had to juggle work-from-home, homeschooling and household chores. How did that work out?

The result was that many children were left to entertain themselves and ended up watching TV and other devices for a disproportionate amount of the day. All this takes its toll on you.

Did the children suffer psychologically?

Yes, a number of parents have reported unusual behaviour such as children crying at the drop of a hat, becoming irritable for no apparent reason, throwing more tantrums than usual, or just feeling sad and demotivated. It was actually heartbreaking and alarming to see our littlest ones in the preschool units go through what seemed to be signs of depression. Mental health is serious and should not be overlooked as it can have severe repercussions with no quick-fix. This prompted us, with the support of many parents, to alert the ministry a few weeks ago and discuss the possible resumption of classes for the early years.

What kind of activities did your schools organise to mitigate those effects?

A few days before the lockdown, we launched an online homeschooling programme specific to each age group to ensure the continuity of the learning but also to keep the children engaged and happy. We recorded video tutorials for every subject of every day, posted a lesson planner every morning with projects, worksheets and assignments etc. Also, every child also had a weekly 1:1 virtual meeting with his or her teacher. I think the panoply of activities helped the children through the lockdown, and I am incredibly proud of the Dukesbridge team for turning a crisis into an opportunity to reinvent ourselves and innovate.

The Ministry of Education's decision to reopen the schools in August was met with dissatisfaction. Don't you think it's prudent to wait for more clarity to send the kids back to school?

Not at all. Many parents have actually asked us to re-open in July itself. If anything, based on a number of metrics (active cases, effectiveness of Covid containment and still-closed borders), I believe that, with some robust measures in line with international health norms, it is in the best interest of the children to be back in school. Not only for their own wellbeing and development, but also socially and economically for our country. In fact, we should make the most of the time when the borders are closed and while we are relatively sheltered in our little cocoon before the floodgates re-open! In any event, how is it safer for children to stay home with babysitters (an unregulated activity) for an extended period of time rather than being under the supervision of qualified teachers, headteachers and visiting inspectors at school? Safety is not all about Covid-19...

Though we have not had any local cases for a few weeks now, there is no certainty that Covid-19 has packed up and gone, is there?

I believe the nation should stop and think objectively for one second: where will the virus come from in an already declared Covid-free Mauritius? The time for it to resurrect from those who were once contaminated has long passed, else the government would be misleading the whole world by saying "come to Mauritius which is Covid-free". The only plausible way that it can re-enter Mauritius would be through the re-opening of our borders. Whilst this may be good for the tourism sector, it is a time bomb waiting to explode despite the best measures one can adopt. It only takes one passenger to contaminate our nation. Social distancing helps flatten the curve, not eradicate a virus.

Re-opening the schools comes with a set of conditions like wearing masks and children not playing with each other. How will that work out in practice?

I honestly don't know! I am very sceptical about the wearing of masks by our children all day long, and I urge the authorities to revisit this rule. There is increasing evidence that masks can cause more harm than good for children under 10, which explains why countless authorities in the world have banned them from school environments: UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Norway, Finland, etc. I totally get that we cannot maintain the traditional "recess time" as we know it. I mean, how can anyone prevent hundreds of excited children from keeping their sweaty hands off each other or a common ball? That said, refraining them from having any outdoor play for months would go against both the Australian curriculum and the Montessori pedagogy which we follow. We have found ample ways to contain children in small groups in short bursts outdoors without taking away the fun play element in their day. I did discuss with the minister of education herself a couple of weeks ago the use of outdoor ventilated spaces at different times of the day. I stand corrected on this, but I do not believe that she meant for any outdoor activity to be completely stopped as long as it can be practised responsibly while maintaining social distancing.

There are autistic children, children with special needs etc. Will they suffer more through a prolonged forced break?

All children thrive on routine. Children with special needs are the worst affected when something disrupts their routine. One of my own sons is on the autistic spectrum and I have witnessed first-hand his frustration during the lockdown, leaving me helpless many a times. Over the last few years, I have come to realise that we have a long way to go here in Mauritius for properly diagnosing, understanding and effectively supporting these children. I applaud the initiative of the authorities to allow these children an hour to walk a hundred metres from their house during the final part of the lockdown. Several other countries like Australia have maintained schooling and professional care for autistic children throughout the crisis so as not to exacerbate their daily struggles.

Do you see any rationale behind re-opening schools in stages, i.e. some going back to school earlier than others?

If there is a possibility that the virus is still here, then yes, I feel that there is merit in enforcing the social distancing health guidelines for some time, requiring those schools with limited infrastructure and staffing resources to cap student attendance. That said, if a school has the ability to accommodate the health and safety guidelines, especially in private schools, would it not be unfair to penalise those children by asking them to come in stages? As an example, at Dukesbridge Primary, we currently only have one Grade 4 class and no Grades 5 and 6 yet. What would be the logic in keeping Grades 1-3 students at home and using the entire school building for only one Grade 4 class? The substance over form principle in my opinion should prevail as long as the social distancing guidelines are observed. In any event, once the borders re-open, it is farfetched to think that children would be safer by attending school only 2-3 times per week. The likeliest scenario is one where working parents become exposed to the virus at work, transmit it at home to their children who in turn then pass it on to the grandparents having to look after the children 2-3 times per week. And how many times do we need to be reminded that grandparents are the ones most at risk? We cannot afford to be blind-sided if we want to avoid a second wave.

In what frame of mind will the children be when they get back to school after what is arguably one of the most unpleasant experience in their lives?

I personally don't think that this was their most unpleasant experience, particularly after their parents and our teachers have done their best to lessen the loneliness and boredom. Overwhelmingly, they cannot wait to get back to school and see their friends. I feel however that they will be disillusioned when they realise that they may not be in the same classroom with all their friends, that they may have a different teacher because of split classes, that there will be no morning assembly or free play during recess, that they cannot hug or high-five their friends amongst the long list of restrictions imposed on them. One cannot underestimate the impact of these changes on their mental state. Sure, we must all adapt. But these are children at the end of the day, not robots. They need time and a solid support network to help them process these modifications.

What measures have been put in place to deal with the various issues they are likely to be experiencing?

The best thing we can do is to prepare them psychologically before they resume. And then, simply being there for them, loving them, encouraging them to voice out their feelings, their anxieties and their emotions. All these non-tangible measures go a long way, trust me! Several countries have also de-loaded their curriculum or simply cancelled their exams to prioritise the socialisation and mental health of their children for this year without the need to push back the academic calendar by several months. I know the importance that our nation attaches to exams, and my hope is that this can change because education is so much more than this. If I am entirely honest, I feel gutted that pupils in lower grades can only attend school two mornings per week for several months to give priority to the higher grades, which are prioritised because of an exam. I would be concerned about their mental health; adults may understand the rationale but children may not.

I understand the private school heads had a meeting to discuss the re-opening of the schools. What was the outcome of the meeting?

On balance, while taking seriously the health and safety considerations which were the premise of the confinement period, we all emphatically support children getting back to school as soon as possible for their own protection and to mitigate inequities which have been exaggerated during this time. Whilst each of us have our own calendars depending on the system we follow (British, Australian, French, Cambridge International, International Baccalaureate, etc), we will communicate with the relevant authorities our common stance on the ways we will uphold the protocols, taking into account our individual infrastructure and staffing resources. Ultimately, we join together with public schools in wanting to advance all students" best interest, which accords with that of Mauritius in general.

If you met the minister of education tomorrow, what would you tell her?

That we are not her enemies and that we are here to help our nation. None of us is perfect and our schools are far from being flawless either, even our best teachers regrettably make mistakes sometimes, but for such a time as this, I would call for a greater collaboration between the private and the public sectors to ensure that protocols, decisions and programmes are made objectively in the best interests of all our children.

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