With COVID-19 infections spiking in many states, parents of school-age children are rightly concerned about school re-openings in the fall. Many school districts throughout the country are offering either in-class instruction or a hybrid option that combines some days in the classroom and some days at home with instruction offered online. Still, others are opting for full online instruction.
School districts that are re-opening fully or partially are working feverishly to tweak, refine, and finalize safety plans – plans that could be obsolete in case of a severe outbreak. If you plan on sending your kids back to school, rather than have them engage in studies online, it’s vital that you have your own plan to keep your kids safe.
It’s difficult to make plans that may require you to pivot at the drop of a dime, but, unfortunately, these are the times we are in. And no matter what learning environment your kids will be in this semester, you also should think through how to protect their mental health as well during this challenging period.
Keeping Your Kids Physically Safe
Unfortunately, many aspects of this global public health crisis have been politicized. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. That said, you should be listening to health experts – and health experts only – from the federal and state governments. Don’t take advice from news pundits, relatives (unless they are qualified medical professionals), or news articles online (such as the one you’re reading right now).
That said, I’m not going to paraphrase physical safety guidance here but point you to the Centers for Disease Control’s online resources on the virus. This is where to look for up-to-date information about how to keep your family safe. You should also look to your state’s department of public health, as well as your county’s department of public health, which you can find with a Google Search. Use these sources and these sources only. Because every news cycle, there’ll be a headline about a “new promising study” or a “Congressman says COVID-19 safety measures are wrong” or something. Until this information is vetted and verified by public health experts – medical scientists who have training and experience studying diseases – ignore it.
The CDC also has some great resources on their website, specifically for parents to develop plans for their child’s safety. There’s an online tool to help parents assess whether it’s safe for your children to go back to school, and a checklist for families to plan for various learning scenarios here.
These CDC resources are invaluable tools with which you should thoroughly familiarize yourself. No matter whether your school is fully reopening, opting for a hybrid model of partial in-class learning and partial online learning, or going fully online, there’s information there that can help you determine the best options to minimize the risk of your child becoming infected.
Also, read your school’s public health safety plan thoroughly, as well as any updates as they become available. Learn what the school’s plans are in case of an outbreak. Familiarize your children with it as well, so they are not caught unaware in case your school temporarily reduces the amount of in-person learning they offer or shifts to online learning only.
Safeguarding Your Kids’ Mental Health
Keeping your child physically safe from the virus is critical. But ensuring your child is mentally healthy is also really important. Here are some ways you can help do so. Share age-appropriate information with your kids. There’s enough misinformation out there about the virus that adults are disseminating. Don’t let an 11-year-old friend in summer camp be your 9-year-olds primary source of information on the biggest health crisis in a century.
Also, talk to your kids about their feelings and experiences during this time. Help provide them as much normalcy as possible by helping them connect online or in-person as much as is safely feasible. If your child’s having difficulties adjusting, seek the services of a mental health professional as soon as possible. Many pediatric psychologists are making themselves available using videoconferencing technology.
Help your kids grieve. My six-year-old told us at dinner one night that he hated COVID because he couldn’t see his friends as much. The coronavirus has disrupted many fundamentals of everyday life, and it’s okay for kids and adults to be sad and angry about it. Let them know that those kinds of feelings are normal. Then share with your child ways to constructively deal with those emotions, like talking to a friend, drawing, or writing in a journal. Not talking about it can lead the child to think their feelings are abnormal, and as a result, they may act out to express them.
Other Mental Health Considerations
Limit screen time. There are multiple studies that show evidence that higher amounts of screen time is correlated with a higher risk for lower overall psychological well-being. Moreover, with more schools relying on pure online learning, and/or hybrid models that include online learning, your child’s screen time will naturally be higher. Higher screen time has been associated with reduced attention spans, making it harder for them to learn online. Make sure your kids are spending a substantial portion of their time working out of physical books, doing science experiments at your kitchen table or in your backyard, and getting time outside to run around outside to break up their screen time.
Assess your child(ren)’s need for supplemental instruction. When the pandemic first forced school closures, most school districts, including mine, were scrambling just to provide some level of instruction. There were significant gaps between the instruction they were able to provide and what they would have provided had the schools not closed. And while schools have had some time to prepare, there are still likely to be some gaps between the quality of instruction they may be able to provide and a normal year. For smaller children especially, online learning is not a good fit.
If your child is not sufficiently and consistently intellectually engaged, they may be at higher risk of exhibiting behavioral problems (especially if they already have difficulties focusing their attention). Make sure you have a supplemental learning plan that can fill the gaps between the instruction your school is able to provide with the instruction your child needs.
With the variations in educational instruction quality occurring between districts and even within schools in the same districts, based on on-the-ground conditions, access to technology, and a number of other factors, you also have to think about the long-term impact on your child’s education. Will your child receive the same level of general education they are expected to by the time they enter high school? College? Many students themselves are worried about just that. Help them alleviate that stress by helping them learn as much as they would have in a normal year through tutoring and other forms of supplemental learning.
Practice self-care. You can’t be there for others if you yourself are in bad shape. If you’re coping in negative ways, you’re not going to have the emotional wherewithal to consistently help your child or children address their anxieties and fears. Take time for your own self-care – as much as you can given your other responsibilities. Alleviate your own stress in constructive ways, so that you can be there for your kids.
Taking an active role in solving a challenge can work wonders towards alleviating one’s fears of said challenges. Getting involved with your parent-teacher association and watching school board meetings online can not only give you up-to-date information but can also give you more a sense of control.