Here’s how you can manage an altered school day when kids go back to class this year.

By Lisa Milbrand
July 27, 2020
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When schools closed suddenly earlier this spring because of COVID-19, parents were hopeful that we might be able to send kids back to school normally this fall. But if you’ve looked at the news lately, school is going to look a lot different this year, no matter if your school district has decided to go all-remote, back to in-person classes five days a week, or somewhere in between.

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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Some school districts, like Los Angeles and Atlanta, are offering only remote learning to start the school year, while Florida plans to send kids back to school, business as usual. But many school districts are offering a variety of options for families to choose from, from modified in-person classes to fully remote learning—which leaves parents to assess their own needs and concerns and pick the plan that works for them.

As you’re making the call, 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, MD, 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.”

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“We don’t know exactly what we’re preparing for, so 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, MD, pediatrician at ProHEALTH Lake Success Pediatrics and chair of pediatrics at ProHEALTH. “We need to prepare our kids emotionally for this.”

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Your child has likely already been wearing masks when they’re out and about, but odds are they haven’t been wearing them for long periods of time. Take some time to get them used to wearing masks correctly in the days and weeks leading up to the start of school.

“Tell your kids to avoid playing with the mask,” Dr. Berger says. “We need to emphasize that it is even more important to do this at school, where germs can be spread more readily. It is very imperative to resist putting their fingers in their mouths and touching their faces—this is how the virus is transmitted.”

Make sure you also go over how to best take masks off (by the earloops), and consider sending a 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

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Six feet apart is a tough concept for even grownups to master, so 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.”

You can also lie on the ground and show how much further than that you’d need to be to be six feet apart (i.e., “it’s at least the size of me with my arms outstretched above my head”). Dr. Rich suggests having kids—even older ones—create their own visualization prompt.

“This summer when they’re playing around hiking, make six foot long walking sticks,” he says. “It lets them know what six feet is. Then when they hang out with their friends, they can put the stick between them.”

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Back to school supplies will look different this year (more hand sanitizer and masks for in-school learning, headphones and desks for remote classes, etc.). Even if your school is planning to start in-person instruction or remote-only, you might want to pick up some back-to-school essentials for the other option, so you’ll have the lunch box or headphones at the ready if your school flips from remote to in-person, or vice versa.

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Schools scrambled to put together virtual learning plans when they shut down in March, but since then, they’ve had more time to reformulate lesson plans to account for the digital learning environment and the issues they faced the first time around.

“A lot of the teachers have been working straight through the summer to rethink and rebuild the way they transmit information,” Dr. Rich says. If possible, get in touch with your kids’ teachers to understand what you can expect this fall.

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Schools are important for your child’s emotional and social development, too. But fortunately, there are ways for kids to socialize safely: Think bike riding, outdoor adventures, and games like Minecraft and Fortnite.

“Interactive online games can serve as a social-emotional connection,” Dr. Rich says. “It’s about learning to negotiate social and emotional relationships, learning to play well with others, and there’s a creative element to it.”

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Extracurricular activities are often even more exciting to kids than school, but offerings will likely be more limited and 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.”

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The changes to school this year could help reduce the risks for everyone—especially as new research shows that older children can pass the virus on as easily as adults might to their teachers, parents, grandparents, and anyone else in their social circle. Encourage your child to think of these disruptions to their lives in that context—that like generations before them, they’re sacrificing a small thing for the greater good.

“People will do for others what they won’t do for themselves,” Dr. Rich says. “This is really about building empathy and community in ways that will sustain us all.”