Back to school time can elicit groans from students and sighs of relief from parents. This year, with the disruption and uncertainty of COVID-19, there are groans all around. What does “the new normal” mean for back-to-school? How can we support and prepare our children? This article covers the known and unknown aspects of going back to school during COVID-19. Coping techniques we can teach our children (and extend to ourselves) are also included.
What We Know
From a Wayne County Public School Districts joint statement, we know that school will begin on the scheduled date. There will be enhanced sterilization procedures, including cleaning playgrounds and installing hand sanitation stations.
School’s attendance policy will be modified. Perfect attendance incentives will be discontinued. Students and staff that have been ill must be fever-free for 72 hours (without the use of fever reducers) before returning to school. There will be a separate clinical area in schools to treat symptomatic individuals.
School space will be used a bit differently. Wayne County schools will work to maximize instructional space and lunch schedules to expand school areas. Guests and visitors to school buildings will be restricted.
Masks will be encouraged to be on students and staff members at all times, but not required. Are you worried about your child wearing a mask? Practice at home, even just half an hour a day. This practice will ease the transition to wearing masks at school.
This is what we know now. Things will most likely change. Check school Facebook pages and websites for updates.
What We Don’t Know
The knowledge of COVID-19 changes almost daily and it’s disseminated through confusing reports. There are still many unknowns. In living memory, there has never been a crisis like this pandemic. We have nothing to compare to the upheaval it has caused.
We don’t know if the number of infected individuals will jump again. And we don’t know if this will lead to another shut-down. Think about how you and your family will handle another prolonged stretch without school. Since my child is in preschool, I plan on following an at-home preschool schedule should the schools shut down again.
The unknown aspects of COVID-19 can be the most frightening. Dealing with uncertainty is as difficult for children as it is for adults.
Back to School During COVID-19 Coping Skills
According to a survey published by Caissa Public Strategy, 89% of parents indicated concern about their child’s safety at school concerning COVID-19. 83% are expecting some sort of change when students return to school in the fall, and only 12% feel nonplussed about things going completely back to normal, or, as things were before COVID-19.
I wonder how our children feel?
Ask them how they feel. Try to assign names to roiling complex feelings.
Small children may have trouble naming them. Emotion charts can help. Ask young children to point to the emotion (and corresponding face) that they’re experiencing. Then ask them to assign a level to that feeling with a stoplight graphic. Red represents overwhelming feelings, yellow for manageable, and green for OK.
Older children won’t appreciate pointing to smiley and frowny faces. Forced choice questions are the way to go, as vague questions will solicit vague answers. An example of a forced choice question is, “Was it a good day, or did anxiety get in the way of having a good day?”
In the middle of all this talking and identifying, don’t forget to actively listen.
Don’t be too quick to offer reassurance. Obviously, comfort your child. But don’t be the hero that automatically sweeps concerns away. Listen to fears and empathize with your own experiences of COVID-19 anxiety. Encourage children to think and talk about what they can control.
Age Appropriate Realism
Calm fears by reminding children of the resilience they’ve already shown. That they’re making it through unprecedented times with a good track record. Remind them of how well they’ve handled things so far: the things they couldn’t do, the people they couldn’t see.
Tell children age-appropriate ways to protect themselves from COVID-19. Stress the importance of handwashing, social distancing when possible, and not licking each other (hey, kids are gross).
Teach Grounding Techniques
Teach children to use grounding techniques when stress looms, like this 5-4-3-2-1 practice. When children feel overwhelming anxiety, teach them to find:
5 things they can see around them (a pencil, their hands, the sky)
4 things they can touch around them (their hair, the ground beneath their feet)
3 things they can hear (any external sound, or internal sounds like stomach rumblings)
2 things they can smell (food, perfume, grass)
1 thing they can taste (this can be the inside of their mouth)
Teaching children to center themselves in current perceptions may help banish paralyzing anxiety and silence “what-if” thoughts.
Deep breathing is another grounding technique. For younger kids, use the analogy “sniff the flower, blow a bubble.” This teaches children to breathe deeply through the nose and slowly release air. Take advantage of older kids’ technological savviness by exploring different mindfulness apps.
Model Positive Coping Skills
Are you having a bad day? Don’t forget to take care of yourself. And narrate it.
Say aloud that you’re feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and/or grumpy. List positive coping skills: exercising, meditating/deep breathing, calling a friend, or other self-care. Let your children see you self-soothing. Invite them to join you.
It’s important to extend grace in this back to school season. Grace to ourselves as parents and individuals. Grace to our children. And, importantly, grace to educators. They too are confused in this sea of uncertainty and changing policy. With clear communication, active listening, positive coping skills, and grace, we’ll all get through going back to school during COVID-19.