Ever since schools closed last spring, many kids across the country have been excited to get back into the classroom. For some, in-person instruction has already begun — albeit with new precautions: In Vermont, for example, class might take place in the open air, under a tent, while in South Carolina, some students might find their desks separated from their neighbors’ by plexiglass dividers. Elsewhere, cities like New York and Providence, R.I., have delayed the start of the term to better prepare their teachers and facilities for students returning to campus.
And some districts that started online are now planning to switch to in-person instruction. Just two weeks into the fall term, Anjie Juarez, a parent in El Cajon, Calif., learned that her son’s school would resume in-person classes in mid-September. She warned him it was going to be completely different; he wouldn’t be able to play tag with his friends, for instance. But he wasn’t fazed. “At a certain point, he was like, ‘That’s fine, I don’t care, Mom — I just want to go back,’” Ms. Juarez recalled recently. “He’s so craving school.”
Still, some parents have remained hesitant to send their children back, even as more schools prepare to begin in-person learning. One national poll conducted in July showed that 76 percent of parents of color, and 51 percent of white parents, would prefer for schools to delay reopening to minimize the health risk — most likely reflecting the disproportionate toll the pandemic has taken on Black and Hispanic communities, in particular.
But with more and more children heading to school buildings across the country each morning, here are some tips for how to facilitate their transition, gleaned from medical experts and parents.
Practice what you’ve learned this summer.
Throughout the past six months, children (and parents) have been building good habits:wearing a mask properly, washing hands and practicing social distancing. Continue to reinforce those behaviors as the first day of school approaches, correcting children as needed and praising them for getting things right, suggested Dimitri A. Christakis, the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. (Even after the term begins, keep modeling consistent mask-wearing and thorough hand-hygiene practices.)
For example, Elizabeth Goldberg, a parent of three and an emergency physician in Providence, has reviewed removing masks by the ear loops (to avoid spreading germs to or from the mask’s surface) with her kids. Her youngest daughter, 3, has been allowed additional screen time while wearing her mask to get accustomed to how it feels over longer periods; the older kids, ages 5 and 8, got ample practice wearing them at tennis camp this summer. Some days, they came home and forgot to take them off. “Kids are actually so much more malleable and adaptable than we give them credit for,” Dr. Goldberg said.
Maintain back-to-school rituals.
“Pandemics rob us of so much,” said Megan Goslin, a clinical psychologist in the trauma section at the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, including many of our daily routines. Still, try to observe the usual back-to-school traditions, whether they involve picking out a new outfit for the first day of school or a celebratory dinner.
As part of their back-to-school shopping, consider having your children pick out a new mask that they’ll be excited to wear at school. (Perhaps even surprise them with another new one a couple of weeks into the fall term, to keep it interesting.) You may also need to stock up on specific supplies for outdoor classrooms — like rain suits and weatherproof pens and paper.
And make a packing list for daily use: You won’t want to forget hand sanitizer, a mask (and, possibly, a backup) and a water bottle on frenzied mornings before school.
Do a dress rehearsal.
To help quell back-to-school jitters, visit the school building before the term starts. Dr. Goldberg, for example, has driven her 5-year-old daughter, who will be entering kindergarten in a new school, to see the building a couple of times. For the most part, though, her children are psyched to be going to school. “We’re just trying to channel this positive energy that they have,” she said.
In-person tours might not be possible now, but you can attend a virtual back-to-school night or talk to your child’s school about organizing a virtual visit to see the classroom and get to know the teacher. “Often, what we’re worried about is the uncertainty,” said Rachel Busman, the senior director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York.
When the first day of school finally arrives, you can coordinate a drop-off time with one of your child’s best friends, if he or she is also attending school in person. That way, they can enter the school building together.
Let the kids lead.
It can be exasperating, as a child, to hear your parents remind you of something you think you already know — so instead, whether regarding hand hygiene or social distancing, ask kids what they should do and let them lead the conversation. This helps reinforce habits and allows them to take ownership of the process. “They’ll start to identify with it as their own set of goals or standards,” said Jennifer Lighter, a pediatric epidemiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center.
The same goes for having tougher emotional conversations about their concerns. Many children are excited to go back to school, rather than fearful. By asking questions, instead of making statements, “you’ll have less opportunity to transmit some of your own worries,” Dr. Busman said. (Seek other outlets for your own anxieties; you’ll be in the best position to support your child’s return to school if you feel supported yourself.)
Validate the fears they do express. After seven months away from school, and under such strange new circumstances, children might be worried about being behind on the material — what if they no longer remember their multiplication tables? — whether their friends will still be there or what happens if they forget or break some of the new rules.
Prepare children (and yourself) with the facts.
Once you understand where your children are coming from, you can fill in the gaps for them and correct misinformation. Keep yourself up to date with the school’s policies — including what happens if a student tests positive for the coronavirus — by checking its website, communicating with teachers and attending virtual meetings in the district, and explain what they can expect in a calm, matter-of-fact way. They might have their temperature taken upon arrival, for example, or see decals on the floor directing them where to walk and stand.
If they find these changes scary, remind them that by practicing good public health strategies, kids can help their friends, family and teachers stay safe. “There’s so much out of our control, and that makes us feel yucky,” Dr. Goslin said. “Helping a kid focus on what they can control is helpful for their anxiety — and also for public health.”
Avoid bombarding them with too much, though: Ms. Juarez, for example, hasn’t talked to her son about what might happen if the school closes again because of a rise in Covid-19 cases. “I want him to handle one thing at a time,” she said.
Keep communicating openly.
Over dinner, Dr. Goslin has regularly asked her children, ages 5 and 8, to share two thoughts about going back to school: one thing they’re excited about, and another they’re wondering about. This kind of regular check-in — with your children, as well as with their teachers — can be valuable after school has resumed, too, helping you understand how they’re faring and how you can best support them.
It may help assuage your own anxieties, too. Nikesha Elise Williams’s son started kindergarten in person last month in Jacksonville, Fla. When he gets home from school, Ms. Williams, a writer, asks him about his day. “If he’s not tripping about it, then I’m not tripping about it,” she said.
Celebrate getting through it.
On a Friday night in August, after her son’s first full week of kindergarten, Ms. Williams took him out for ice cream — his favorite treat. As you reach the end of Week 1 (or even Month 1; Dr. Goslin noted the period it usually takes for kids to adjust to school might be extended this year), mark the achievement with a safe, socially distanced outing for a meal or dessert, get takeout and rent a movie or even plan a socially distanced play date.
And whatever concerns you may have about your child returning to the classroom, “trust your decision,” Ms. Williams said. “Especially as mothers, we always get the guilt over any decision that we make.”