How to talk to your friends and classmates about COVID-19 and school reopening?

Here are some tips for students to have conversations with their friends and classmates

UNICEF ECARO
Two girls are washing their hands.
UNICEF Georgia/UN0399646/Jibuti
20 September 2021

Actively listen

If you notice that your friends are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic and school reopening:

  • Show genuine interest and ask them, “Do you want to talk about your feelings and concerns?” or “How are you feeling about going back to school? ”
  • Listen attentively like turning your body to face your friend and waiting until they have finished speaking before you respond. Reflect on what your friend says by summarizing or restating it back to them in your own words and asking if you have understood well. Be careful not to give advice. Do not tell your friend what to do.
  • Validate their feelings: Tell your friend, “I can understand why you feel this way” or “It must be hard for you.”
  • Try to understand their point of view by putting yourself in their shoes and seeing things from their perspective. Think about how your friend feels rather than how you would feel.
  • Respond with respect by thanking your friend for sharing their feelings with you. That means they trust you. Do not laugh at them, make fun of them or talk about what they shared with peers unless they want you to

Sometimes, your friends may share information that indicates they might need help or more attention from an adult, such as that they are depressed or that they wish to harm themselves or someone else. It is important not to talk about your friends behind their backs, but talking to an adult if your friend needs help (even if they ask you not to) is sometimes necessary.

If you feel comfortable, you may also share a personal story of how you are feeling and overcoming the concerns and challenges. However, make sure not to shift the focus of the conversation, keeping your friend as the central part of it. If they aren’t ready to talk, don’t push them. You can tell them, “You don’t need to share your feelings with me if you don’t want to, but I am still happy to spend time with you and keep you company.” You can just sit beside them and reassure them that you will be there when they are ready to talk. It will make them feel that they aren’t alone and they will slowly begin to open up. 

Offer support

Going back to school can be as exciting as it is worrying for some of your friends and classmates. They might feel less motivated to do activities they used to enjoy at school. It could be because of various factors. They may have lost someone they love or they may be overwhelmed with a huge amount of information including on social media, TV or other channels. Though it is important to stay up-to-date , over-consumption of information, especially those that have an impact on the way we feel, can take a toll on emotional and mental health well-being. You/they might have been exposed to rumours and false information that would have heightened their fears.

You can help them to strike a balance to keep themselves informed by looking for information using reliable sources such as UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as local health authorities in your country. You can share some of your own positive experiences on how to navigate the situation – maybe ‘doing a physical activity', ‘learning a new skill’ or ‘spend more time with the family'. You can invite them to do some fun activities together while maintaining a safe distance from each other. Instead of talking about who got sick and how to focus on who got well and recovered. Talk about how things are getting better with the introduction of the vaccines. Ask them to follow all preventive measures to stay safe from COVID-19. Encourage them and remind yourself to disconnect sometimes too. Your mind, just like your body needs time to rest to stay well.

Be kind and respectful

Watching your friend experience the physical and emotional pain of bullying or cyberbullying can be heart-breaking. If your friend or their family member have been diagnosed with COVID-19, there is a possibility of your friend being bullied by other people. Sometimes, people who belong to a particular community are the victims of bullying, because of misinformation as some people look for someone to blame for the impact of COVID-19 in their lives. But bullying is harmful and will leave your friend feeling devalued, rejected and excluded.

COVID-19 can affect anyone at anytime, if proper preventive measures aren’t followed. If your friend is a victim of bullying, be kind and offer support. If your friend or classmate is bullying others – online or at school, be a positive role model, speak up when others are mistreated and question bullying behaviours. Remind them that comments made online still hurt people in the real world. You can prevent bullying by being inclusive, respectful and kind to your peers. You/your friend/your classmate does not have to face bullying alone. Educate yourself about schooling policies relating to in-person as well as cyberbullying.

Reporting bullying to your school is important. If you are uncomfortable reporting to  school officials, tell a trusted adult – parents, teachers or counsellors. Talk to your school teacher and explain how you/your friend feels about it. If you are reporting cyberbullying, keep a record of the date and time of the calls, e-mails or texts and don’t delete any messages you receive.

Educate your friends about facts and avoid the spread of misinformation

Knowing the facts will protect not only you but also your friends and classmates. Be aware of the fake information about COVID-19 circulating on social media that is feeding fear. Some of your friends might be returning to school after hearing false information about COVID-19. If they tend to share inaccurate or false information, don’t criticize them publicly. Talk to them in private and explain the consequences of misinformation. You can ask them about their source. If it is an unreliable source, encourage them to find information about COVID-19 from reliable sources such as UNICEF and WHO, and health authorities in your country. Explain to them that misinformation spreads panic and may result in additional stress and anxiety for people. By staying informed about the situation and following public safety and health measures, you can protect yourself as well as your friends and classmates.

Encourage them to follow the protective measures

Encourage your friends to stick to the rules of COVID-19 at school as well as outside. Help them understand that following safety and protective measures will help them and their loved ones stay safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

  • When engaging in school activities such as playing together or walking in the hallways, encourage them to maintain a safe distance. You can stretch your arms to have an idea of what a safe distance is.
  • Talk about hand hygiene, which includes washing your hands for a minimum of 40 seconds with water and soap or using an alcohol-based hand rub for at least 20 seconds.
  • If your friends find it uncomfortable to wear a mask, show them how to wear the mask correctly - covering the mouth, nose, and chin. Explain that masks act as a barrier to prevent respiratory droplets – when a person with COVID-19 coughs, speaks or sneezes – from reaching us.
  • If a vaccine is available to your friends, encourage them to get vaccinated. You can emphasize that vaccines go through rigorous processes to ensure they are safe and effective.
  • Be a role model of positive behaviours and encourage them to follow your school and community's safety and health guidelines.