It’s amazing how something as ordinary as going to school can become frightening and overwhelming during a pandemic.
While some children have been attending school throughout the pandemic, most have been learning remotely, or in a hybrid model of some remote and some in person. As we pass the one-year mark, it has become increasingly clear that children need to get back into their pre-pandemic school routines. It’s not just education that has suffered; being isolated at home is bad for the mental and physical health of children too.
The problem is, the pandemic isn’t over yet. While vaccines are giving us hope, children under 16 can’t yet be vaccinated, and access to vaccines for teachers is uneven. Understandably, many people would prefer not to make any changes just yet. Instead, they’d like to wait until the next school year, when more adults will be vaccinated and high school students may be eligible for vaccines.
Waiting could do more harm
But so much has been lost already, and many students and families are in crisis. Even for those who aren’t in crisis, getting away from computer screens, back to in-person teaching and seeing friends, not to mention some physical activity — could make a big difference for many students, even if it is just for a few weeks.
Most school districts do and will continue to provide a remote option — and for children and families with high medical risk who are not yet vaccinated, that may be the best option. But if there isn’t anyone at high risk in the family, and if community numbers are low, school is likely safe. It’s also the better educational option.
Learn about school district plans for safety
It’s important to know what your school’s plans are for
- Distancing: What is feasible? What will classrooms and lunchrooms look like?
- Masks: Wearing well-fitted masks lowers the risk for spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. Staff and students should wear them — even if staff have had the vaccine.
- Handwashing: There should be regular opportunities for staff and students to wash their hands, and hand sanitizer should be available.
- Screening for symptoms and exposure: There should be daily screening for any symptoms of COVID-19, or any exposure to someone with the illness — and clear protocols for isolating and testing before coming back to school.
- Contact tracing: If a staff member or student is found to have COVID-19, there should be a clear system for identifying and notifying all possible contacts, with a clear plan for quarantine and testing.
- Ventilation: The more air can circulate, the better. This is more feasible in some buildings than others.
- Cleaning: Shared surfaces should be regularly cleaned.
- Meals: Students should be safely spaced while eating, and any meals served should be pre-packaged.
How can parents help children prepare to go back to school?
Some students haven’t been in a school building for a year. Parents may need to do some preparation, such as
- Practicing wearing masks: It’s not easy to wear one for hours at a time, and families may want to practice.
- Getting used to keeping distance: If students have only been with family members or others in their pod, they may not be used to the idea of staying three to six feet apart. Families will need to talk about this, and may want to practice this too.
- Planning for hand-washing: Get in the habit of doing it regularly at home so it will be easier to remember at school.
- Changing schedules: After a year of rolling out of bed (or not) and starting school on a computer, it may be a hard change to get up earlier, get dressed, and commute to school. It may also require an earlier bedtime. It could be helpful to adjust to those schedules a few days ahead of time.
- Have conversations about what it will be like to be in class again: While children learning online have had to follow the rules of a remote class, they may have forgotten about the rules of an in-person class. Talk about how it will be different.
- Meal planning: Meals look different at schools these days, and packing a lunch may be the best bet. Doing some planning and shopping (for foods that are simple to prepare, and a lunchbox and water bottle) may be helpful.
Be prepared for some bumps in the transition, and set aside time every day to talk with your child about their feelings and experiences. It could be a "high/low" open question at dinner, or some other screen-free time when your child can have your full attention. Keep questions open-ended and ask them in the most supportive way you can.
If you have questions about your child’s particular situation, talk to your doctor.