How to Prep Kids for a Potentially Bumpy Return to School

As elementary school students return to in-person classes, parents are getting increasingly concerned about their kids’ safety. The Delta variant has caused a surge in pediatric Covid-19 hospitalizations, especially in areas with low vaccination rates. And some states aren’t mandating masks in classrooms, leaving parents uncertain about whether their kids should return at all.

Added to the worries are fears that after a year of remote learning, some kids have potentially fallen behind academically, or become less comfortable socializing with peers.

As the American Academy of Pediatrics continues to review the rapidly evolving coronavirus situation in schools, it is still recommending in-person education, said Dr. Sara Bode, chairwoman-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on School Health. But at the same time, it is strongly recommending universal masking and a speedy authorization of vaccines for kids under 12.

Here are some ways you can ensure a smooth re-entry for your child.

Discuss the importance of vaccines and masking.

One of the best ways to level a bumpy road back to in-person schooling, said Dr. Bode, who is also a general pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, is to give children a good sense of what they can expect, and for parents to make clear that they believe a safe return is possible.

“Projecting that calm reassurance is going to do a lot,” she said.

First, and most importantly, make sure all family members who are eligible are fully vaccinated, said Dr. Grace Black, a general pediatrician affiliated with the University of Rochester Medical Center. This includes kids ages 12 and up, as well as their older siblings, parents and grandparents.

As soon as the vaccine is available to kids under 12, said Dr. Amy Shriver, a general pediatrician in Des Moines who is affiliated with Blank Children’s Hospital, it’s important that they get it, too.

If your child is too young to receive the vaccine and is anxious about returning to school, reassure her that experts are working to make the vaccine available as quickly as possible, and that her pediatricians are eager to help.

Tell your child that the vaccines are safe and effective, said Dr. Danielle Erkoboni, a general pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and that using them in tandem with masks is the best way to keep everyone safe. Frank discussions like these can give children a sense of their own power and agency in a potentially scary time. “I think that is a critical part of the conversation when we ask a child to do anything, for them to understand why,” she said.

Talk to kids about the types of masks that are most effective (multiple ply, close fitting, sides tucked in) and how to wear them properly.

Be OK with academic imperfection.

Because of the large-scale disruptions in learning over the past year, some students will be returning with major gaps in their education, Dr. Bode said, and they will need time to catch up.

Instead of focusing on the expectation that kids will be at grade level, the tone for teachers and parents should be, “this may be something you missed, we’re just going to have to work on it together.”

It’s reasonable for parents to be worried that a child missed too much during remote schooling, Dr. Erkoboni said. “I’ve had a lot of families who have chosen to keep their child back a year.” But whenever possible, it’s best to keep children with their classes and trust that the teachers will help them make up ground, she advised. “The resounding voice we’re hearing from educators, and we’re repeating in the clinic, is that teachers are armed and ready.”

On the other hand, Dr. Erkoboni continued, if you notice that your child is really struggling to catch up and isn’t able to meet certain expectations, it could be time to line up additional support. “Call your pediatrician,” she said, who can provide guidance on possible next steps. “We often can hook families into further evaluation or behavioral therapies.”

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Reintroduce social activities safely.

“Most of my patients who were virtual last year had a really rough year,” Dr. Shriver said. “They weren’t learning well, they were lonely, most didn’t have any outside activities like sports,” and many of those kids struggled physically and mentally.

While the weather is still warm, summer activities and visits with friends — hikes, picnics, ball games in the park — can help reintroduce kids to group activities and take some of the tension out of going back to the classroom.

Of course, these activities should only be done if they can take place safely, and ideally outdoors. Pay attention to local rates of transmission, deciding what level of risk and connection your family is comfortable with (for instance, tennis is safer than soccer, soccer is safer than wrestling), and make sure that everyone (including the supervising adults) is adhering to safety protocols. That means practicing outdoors, distancing when possible and wearing masks when close together.

Return to a routine.

Children’s schedules have become disarranged over the pandemic year, with many eating and sleeping at odd hours.

To help your kids get back on track before school starts, return to your regular school-year routine now: Enforce regular sleep and wake times (with a “no screen” rule for at least an hour before bed), and try to keep meal times consistent — with dinner not too late and breakfast early enough to be eaten before school.

Try to reestablish some dietary boundaries too; prioritize fruits and vegetables over highly processed foods or sweetened beverages at mealtimes. Many children (and adults) have understandably gained excess weight as a direct result of the year stuck at home, in part because of less exercise and overeating because of stress.

This has been a tricky topic for pediatricians, who know that many families have been under tremendous strain over the past year, and don’t want to make children self-conscious or put additional pressure on parents. Being in school should help shift children back toward eating on a schedule, active play at recess (and in gym) and reduced screen time.

But in the meantime, parents can model those healthy habits — eating set meals rather than constant snacking, and increasing physical activity.

Provide support.

When children are feeling vulnerable, they need more physical affection, reassurance and acknowledgment of their feelings, Dr. Shriver said. In times of stress, let your child know that you are there for them by increasing the amount of attention and interaction you provide at home.

Regularly ask about their day by going around the table and having everyone tell one story, or do check-ins individually. If your child seems troubled or is expressing fear or anxiety, listen to their concerns and acknowledge that these are complicated times. Don’t dismiss them. If needed, be ready to offer outside solutions, like speaking with a teacher or calling their pediatrician.

Be prepared for some challenges.

Going back to school means that your child will be mingling with children whose families may have had different approaches to safety. Some children may not want to wear masks; others may be from families that rigorously practiced physical distancing, and some may have families that took fewer precautions.

Some children may even find themselves facing bullying or mockery as a result of their precautions. Dr. Shriver said that when mask wearing became voluntary, “some kids were ripping masks off other kids.” If your child’s school is not requiring universal masking, you may have to work with teachers and administrators directly to see if you can implement some changes.

Also make sure that your child’s school is doing everything they can to create a culture of acceptance and compassion, and that they are taking bullying — whether it’s because of weight gain, masking, academic issues or anything else — seriously and addressing it promptly.

Parents should model this in how they talk with (and about) one another, and in how they behave with teachers. “We should all be giving each other a lot of grace as we enter this new stage of the pandemic with its challenges,” Dr. Shriver said. “Just be kind to one another.”

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