Thriving Families//

A Guide to Heading Back to School During a Pandemic

These tools will help both parents and kids make the transition back to the classroom.

FamVeld/ Shutterstock
FamVeld/ Shutterstock

School is just around the corner and all of us, parents and children of all ages, are so excited for it to start. Never in a million years I thought I’ll hear my teenage son saying he is counting the days for school to start. I’m not surprised, it’s been 6 months since my children saw the inside of a classroom. They are ready to go back! But wait a minute… go back to what?

To a sterile classroom? To face masks and 6 feet distance? To no high fives and no gathering in the hallways, no lockers, sitting apart for lunch? To teachers standing in the front of the classroom, wearing a face mask and maybe also a face shield, trying to teach and hopefully having the kids hear what he/she has to say? To no science experiments, no school plays, limited busing… This is not the school year our kids are craving for and yet, this is what they’ll be getting. We want our kids back at school, and our kids want to get back at school. Mostly for human interactions, they want to be able to see their friends. It might be just me, but I want my kids at school for socialization more than for education per-say. They were isolated for far too long and we are starting to see some of the implications.

Now what? Experts are trying to define the best practices to open schools. Some will go hybrid while some continue with virtual classes only. That’s the best plan we have, at least until there is a COVID-19 vaccine, and that may take a while.

My kids are moving up at school, one starts middle school while the other, high school. I know it will be a different experience and a challenging transition for them both. I know the teachers will do anything they possibly can to help my kids transition back, as well as establish meaningful connections with classmates and their teachers. I am trying to do my part as well, and help provide them with tools for transitioning, make the most out of this very challenging year.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, I truly hope so. Here are my tips, hopefully they can help you as well.

Open communications

Before we can talk to our children about tools they can use, let’s start by explaining the situation to them, what is it that they should expect (obviously based on their level of maturity). In my school district, discussions about opening schools were going on for months now, once we started to see a plan forming I shared it with my kids. Letting them know this is probably going to be how school will look like for this coming year. I even had them listen to some of the Board meetings. Asked for their comments and suggestions to the plan, and gave them the space to share any concerns about how it may be. This process allowed them to mentally prepare and have an idea of what to expect.

Health plan & prevention

COVID-19 is a serious disease. It’s highly contagious with no vaccine or a cure. Our best practices so far are social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing. Besides getting them masks for school, Purell, and disinfecting wipes, we all went to get our flu vaccine. Symptoms are similar and I wanted to be prepared. So that was my plan.

As for prevention — We will all need to adjust to this (not so) new normal, meaning wear a mask during the entire day of school, wash hands more frequently, and keep 6 feet apart from classmates and friends. I started having them with social-distancing play dates (sorry, hangouts — they are too old for play dates) outside with their friends. Just like at school, masks stayed on the entire time, they were keeping 6 feet distance, and there was no sharing of food. Luckily the weather was nice and we could do it. This normalized the change, and showed them it’s not so bad. When they do get back into a physical classroom, seeing friends and teachers with masks will now look somewhat normal.

Getting our supplies ready

Starting a new school should be fun. We compiled a list of all school supplies they will need, added some basic sanitation essentials, and went to Staples.

New backpack — check; Binders — check; Folders & composition notebooks — check and check; Pens, pencils, erasers, and a pencil case holder — we got them all. We are ready!

Even if we change how we study this year, we still need our office supplies. Going through this “normal” process puts us back on the positive track. It becomes the anchor in this change.

Workspace

As you know the majority of school work will be done at home. We worked on setting up a workspace for them based on best practices from last year. It is a very individual process but there are some guidelines we can follow. For starters we cleared the desk from all clutter, we made space for books, the laptop, and other office supplies. That’s not all.

We re-positioned the table so the background for zoom is better (no virtual background was allowed for us). And we made sure when they lift their head from their computer or textbook, they see the view of the outside (preferable nature). This was a trick I’ve learned from a study done back in 2018 showing correlation between higher test scores at school and trees. I’d figure you’ll appreciate it. For the final touch we added a small plant to enhance creativity, a plant of their choice, to take care of.

Manage anxiety

We are all anxious to start again, this year the anxiety is mixed with fear. Fear of getting sick, fear of our loved ones getting sick, fear of being around people again, and that’s on top of all the “normal school first day stuff” (i.e anxiety of meeting our new teacher, getting to know the new students, etc.).
I wrote about my fear for our teens, when schools were just closed. Now as they are about to open in one way or another, I fear for them again. Research shows that during this pandemic our teens are disproportionately suffering from mental health issues. Mental Health America states that 80% of 10–18 year olds screened are suffering moderate to severe anxiety. Being a teenager is challenging enough without a global pandemic. Make sure to speak with your child and provide them with the tools to manage it. Tools like:

  • Exercise — Scientists have found that regular aerobic exercise helps stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Even five minutes of it can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects. Not everything our kids were doing is allowed during these times. It doesn’t mean we can’t get creative. Tennis, running, even walking the dog counts. See what they think, they may surprise you.
  • Exposure to nature — new research found that 2 hours a week in nature can boost your health and help with anxiety. Green space has a powerful effect on our stress levels too, even looking at pictures of trees can help us to feel calmer.
  • Practice mindfulness — Mindfulness was proven to help in many areas of our lives. The ability to go back to your breath is key. If you can, I encourage you to teach your child breathing exercises they can do when they feel anxious. For older kids I would suggest a mindfulness app like headspaceCalm, or Take Pause. Take Pause, for example, is geared towards teens with visuals to help them focus. It’s also been clinically tested and in 5 minutes can reduce anxiety level by almost half.
  • Minimize screen time — Yes, I know in days where most of our communication and school work is done on a screen this is harder than ever. However, it is still possible. Our kids are stressed enough with school, now we added a pandemic to the mix, no need to add more to that. Being on their devices will only enable exposure to more stress (i.e news, social media, etc). I predefined the times my kids are on their devices (separate from school related work). Setting boundaries in this area is useful to my family and others I advise on that matter, try it and let me know about yours.

Please remember, if none of it is helping or you feel it’s not enough, I encourage you to seek professional help. Consult with your doctor or the school psychologist about getting help.

These are unprecedented times. We see it everywhere, schools are no exceptions. While this back to school is hard every year, this year we have an additional challenge with COVID-19. This is just another challenge we are going to face. We will get through it. I hope the tool kit I provided here will make this year meaningful and stress-less for you and your children.

Please share with me in the comment section your suggestions and tips for our kids.

Wishing us all a productive and safe 2020–21 school year!

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