As some schools prepare to reopen this fall for in-person learning, parents are facing a whole new back-to-school to-do list. This includes teaching children how to reduce the risk of contracting 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19), adapt to new routines, handle awkward and potentially risky social interactions, and cope with worries and anxiety.
So along with paper and pencils, parents are packing backpacks with hand sanitizer and face masks. But teaching children to be responsible for their own safety is the most important way parents can prepare their children for back-to-school, says Adam J. Ratner, MD, director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and pediatrician at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone.
Children need help understanding how to navigate situations at school that may pose risks to their health and safety, he says. “Talk through scenarios, such as, ‘What should you do if you get to the playground, and kids are running around without masks?’ In an age-appropriate way, explain ways they can ask their friends to wear a mask, or advise them to seek out a teacher,” says Dr. Ratner.
“Parents need to arm their children with information,” says Dr. Ratner. “These are tough discussions, but it’s important to reinforce these strategies in the least scary way possible.”
Establish a Routine
After months of remote learning and the summertime hiatus from school, many children will struggle with getting into a new routine. Families may also find it difficult to adjust and align their schedules, especially with a mix of online and in-person learning being used by many school districts.
She recommends creating a calendar that outlines which days are online versus in-person learning, and then breaks down what will happen during each of those days. “This helps kids anchor themselves to the day and meet goals. When schedules are too open-ended, kids feel that instability and can be more anxious or display more disruptive behavior,” she says.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Other ways to prepare children for the classroom include habits you can reinforce at home says Jennifer L. Lighter, MD, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and a pediatric epidemiologist at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital.
Teach your child to wash their hands before they leave and when they get home; before and after eating; after using the bathroom; and after sneezing or blowing their nose, Dr. Lighter says. These are habits that can continue at school, such as using hand sanitizer after using frequently touched surfaces such as bannisters and doorknobs.
Most importantly, help your child get used to wearing a mask. “In the days and weeks before school starts, practice putting it on every time you leave the house,” says Dr. Lighter. “Show your child how to stretch out the mask so that it covers from the top of the nose to the bottom of the chin.”
Build up their mask tolerance by slowly increasing the length of time your child wears a mask. Then, by the time school starts, wearing a mask will feel more natural, which will help with the adjustment to the classroom.
Safety in the Classroom
Getting children to wear a mask all day, or at all, may be difficult, but most children can successfully use masks with practice and positive reinforcement. In some situations, particularly with the youngest children, face shields may be an alternative, says Dr. Ratner. These shields are clear and may allow for better teacher–student interaction. Ask your school administrator if they are allowed in some settings instead of face masks.
Cleanliness of school facilities is an important factor, says Dr. Ratner. Request a copy of your school’s back-to-school plan, which outlines safety protocols. Do not hesitate to ask questions. School administrators should be able to tell you how often bathrooms are being cleaned, how hallways are managed between classes, what the plan is for isolating a child who is sick at school, and what is being done to ensure children are spaced out in the classroom and other areas of the building.
Many schools will require parents to do a symptom check before going to school. This can include taking your child’s temperature and taking note of any signs of sickness, such as a sore throat or sneezing.
Now more than ever, if your child is showing any signs of sickness, it’s important that they stay home. “Not having kids go to school sick is going to be super important this year,” says Dr. Ratner. “The same goes for teachers and other people who are in the classroom. If you don’t feel well, please stay home.”
Managing Your Child’s Anxiety
Even in the absence of a pandemic, the return to school can trigger anxiety in children and adolescents. Signs of anxiety include a decline in academic performance; change in eating habits; the inability to fall asleep until very late at night, and then the struggle to wake up; excessive feelings of guilt and restlessness; avoiding friends; and a change in mood such as irritability, tantrums, or emotional outbursts. Stomach aches, nausea, headaches, and obsessive behaviors such as perfectionism when performing tasks can also indicate that your child is struggling.
With the pandemic, some children will be scared about going back to school, being around friends, or being outdoors at all—especially without a parent there to provide reassurance. “There are increasing issues related to anxiety and adjusting emotionally to the new norm,” says Dr. Diaz. “But fear and anxiety should not be the primary factors that stop a child from going back to school.”
Instead, parents can develop a coping plan that includes the following tactics:
- help your child identify their worries and fears, and then provide child-friendly, fact-based information to address those issues
- reassure your child that their teachers and parents will be there to help
- encourage your child to take “coping breaks” when they feel anxious, such as deep breathing, doodling for a few minutes, counting to a certain number, imagining a favorite place, or repeating coping statements such as, “It’s normal to be nervous, but I’m OK, and I’ll make it through the day”
Encourage your child to tell you about how their worries affected them at school, and seek out extra help from a school counselor or teacher if needed.
Encourage Safe Socializing
Staying connected with friends, both virtually and in-person, is vitally important, says Dr. Lighter. And, as any parent of a teenager can attest, it’s also hard to control. So parents can consider creating boundaries for their children by encouraging them to keep within a set circle of kids.
“If a child has a group of friends, talk with their parents about committing to only being with those friends,” says Dr. Lighter. “The social aspect of childhood is so important, but it has to be done in a safe way.”
Getting outside is also great for mental and physical health, and is a safer socializing option. Encourage your child to be physically active whenever possible. If the distance is manageable, consider walking or biking to school instead of driving or taking public transit. While the weather is still warm, aim for family walks in the evening. This is a good opportunity to get moving while also connecting at the end of your day.
See Your Doctor Regularly
If you think your child may have been exposed to COVID-19, or is exhibiting symptoms, call your pediatrician and ask for guidance about COVID-19 testing. They can provide diagnosis and treatment, and help keep the entire family healthy.
Also, get a flu shot. “It is important, this year in particular, to vaccinate against the flu,” says Dr. Lighter. “Influenza and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, and vaccination reduces the risk of infection, the need for sick days from school, and symptom confusion that leaves you wondering if you have the flu or COVID-19, or something else.”
Maintaining regular doctor’s visits is important for your child’s health, as well as that of the entire family, so keep up with well-child visits and all of your child’s immunizations.