With more students going in-person this year, the Delta variant on the rise, and vaccinations not approved for kids under 12, this still won't be an entirely "back-to-normal" back-to-school.

By Lisa Milbrand
Updated July 29, 2021

We're gearing up for yet another year of back-to-school impacted by the pandemic, as the Delta variant spreads and COVID cases rise again. That's left many parents yet again wondering and worrying about what the school year will be like this year.

As with everything else, preparation will be key to making the transition to school during the coronavirus pandemic smooth for you and your kids. Here's how to start talking to your kids about what they can expect this year.

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1 Consider your options

Most school districts have pledged to provide in-person learning for students, while some will continue to offer remote options for students who want it.

As you're deciding whether to go in-person or remote, it's helpful to consult expert sources to get the most up-to-date information. "Seek out up-to-date info from reputable sources like the CDC," says Michael Rich, M.D., MPH, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and founding director of the Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders. "Knowledge is power and will help you assess your situation and give you peace of mind."

You might also consult with your own doctors to learn more about what the caseload and vaccination rate is like in your area, and how that may impact anyone in your family who might have medical issues that make them more susceptible to the virus.

2 Decide what you want to do about masking

The experts don't currently agree on what to do about masking in schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that only kids and teachers who are unvaccinated need to wear masks in the schools, while the American Academy of Pediatrics says everyone in schools should mask, regardless of vaccination status. 

"Studies that looked at schools that masked and didn't mask, it did make a significant difference," says Jennifer Lighter, M.D., pediatric epidemiologist at NYU Hassenfeld Children's Hospital, on SiriusXM's Doctor Radio's  "Doctor Radio Reports" with Dr. Marc Siegel. "We know that masks work, and they definitely reduce the amount of virus that is in the air that's circulating near you." 

By now, most kids have become old pros at mask-wearing—just consider sending few extra masks in their backpacks or lunch boxes so they can change to a fresh one if the first gets sweaty after recess or after they've eaten.

RELATED: How to Stop Glasses from Fogging Up When You're Wearing a Mask

3 Talk over the school plan with your child, including what changes they can expect

"We've got to really help our kids be resilient and ready to roll with whatever happens," Dr. Rich says. "First thing we have to do is help them normalize, as much as possible, this changing environment and changing possibilities."

If kids know going in that they will have a temperature check at the door and will be required to wear a mask in the classroom, they'll walk in feeling more confident and ready to face the new normal.

And make sure you prepare your child for the possibility that things may change yet again. "Parents should also walk through the very real possibility that they may go to school for a few weeks or months, and then school may return to remote learning from home," says Jay Berger, M.D., pediatrician at ProHEALTH Lake Success Pediatrics and chair of pediatrics at ProHEALTH. "We need to prepare our kids emotionally for this."

4 Prepare them for social distancing

Look for ways to help your kids visualize the appropriate distance. "Demonstrate to your kids how far saliva can travel when talking, shouting, singing, or sneezing," Dr. Berger says. "Google it for a visual demo."

While we've been talking about 6 feet apart for a while, the CDC has reduced the recommendation to 3 feet apart in schools. "Unfortunately, we cannot do 6 feet of distance and expect to have in-person learning in populated urban areas," Dr. Lighter says. "So the American Academy of Pediatrics supported by the CDC suggests 3 feet and masking is safe and it is safe."

5 Determine what you'll need for school

Back-to-school supplies will look different this year—more hand sanitizer and masks for in-school learning, and ensuring you have good materials for remote learning if quarantine is required. 

6 Prep for safer extracurriculars

Extracurricular activities are often even more exciting to kids than school, but offerings will likely be modified to make it safer. Still, Dr. Rich says not to give up on sports, dance, and other extracurriculars. "Sports are important for physical as well as emotional wellbeing. We shouldn't shy away from sports, so much as rethink them in context."

7 Consider vaccination, for your child and yourself

If your child is 12 or older, there's still time to get the Pfizer vaccine before school starts. And with more adults in the community vaccinated, that helps reduce the chances of additional spread of the virus. 

"Keeping schools open in some capacity for the entire year is really integral for the health and well-being of our children," says Chanelle A. Coble-Sadaphal, M.D., adolescent medicine specialist at NYU Langone, on SiriusXM's Doctor Radio's  "Doctor Radio Reports" with Dr. Marc Siegel. "We will figure out how to do it even despite the Delta variant, but it really is going to take a lot of more important work by the adults who are choosing not to be vaccinated, or those who are not vaccinating their eligible children." 

8 Keep in mind that your child may need some time to adjust

If your child is shifting back to in-person after a year or more of remote learning, it will take some time for them to adjust to the new normal—with increased rules during school, the distractions of classmates, and everything else that comes with a school day. Expect that you might need to help them adjust—whether that's with earlier bedtimes to manage fatigue, or healthy ways to deal with stress.