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Going Back to School During COVID



 Going back to school in the fall can be a difficult process in the best of years, but as we all know, we are definitely not living in the best of years. In the middle of a pandemic, kids, teachers, and parents are all struggling. We have to take care of ourselves and each other. I deeply miss not being a classroom teacher, but it does mean I'm  no longer just living in survival mode, and have a little more bandwidth. So I thought I'd offer some thoughts and suggestions for surviving and maybe, possible, thriving a little during another difficult year. I'd love to hear of anything else you might think of in how to support each other. 

Anxiety is normal: It might help to remember that this year, anxiety is normal for everyone! Students, parents, teachers, support staff… everyone is worried. No one knows what this year will bring and I’d say everyone is on edge. That might not seem encouraging, but at least you can know you’re not alone. It might help kids (of all ages) if parents and teachers both tell them things like, “It is OK to be worried. I’m going to do my best to keep you safe, but being worried is pretty normal and a sign that you know what’s going on.” Adults are pretty sick of hearing “we’re all in this together” but the kids might need to hear it still. Many of them don’t really have the words to express this anxiety and knowing they aren’t alone can really help.

Dealing with transition: The beginning of a school year always brings transition, but this year will be much more than normal. Many kids ended the last school year with only a few hours in school, two days a week. The jump to full days, five days a week is going to be a major change, even if they are feeling safe. Some kids may also be going to aftercare for the first time in almost two years (or ever!) as their parents are expected to be back in their offices. This can be exciting, nerve-wracking, and exhausting.

Giving grace: It’s natural for parents to worry about “summer slide” and “learning loss” at the end of any summer. This year, there’s more talk about these things, and for good reason. However, we know that kids can’t learn when they’re traumatized (and neither can adults!) Make no mistake, the pandemic has been traumatic. Even if your child hasn’t lost anyone or seen anyone seriously ill, they have experienced the collective trauma that we all have. This is the time to give them grace. 

Modeling how to deal with hard emotions is another way of helping give grace to your kids as well as any other humans around. If you’re snappy because you’re exhausted, it’s OK to say to your child, I’m so sorry I said that in a grouchy way. I’m really tired, and you know how when you’re tired, it can be hard to be nice? Please forgive me and I’ll try to do better.” (normalize apologizing to kids!) 

De-stress academics: Homework should not be the focus right now, and test scores are honestly not that important. Yes, I am a teacher saying that! Of course academics are important. But your child’s mental health, confidence, and general well-being comes first. Think about when you’ve been able to perform well at work. Was it when you were starting something totally new while being terrified that you weren’t doing well enough? Never. This is the time to check in with your child. Read together if you can. Let homework slide sometimes. 

When assessments happen, as they will, it’s important that your child learns how to avoid panicking. When I was in the classroom, I would tell kids that the assessments were to find out how well I was teaching. I’d explain to them that, for example, if most of the kids didn’t do well on the assessment, it meant that I needed to find a new way of teaching the subject so that they understood it better. I explained to them that there were so many different ways of learning and there was only one of me, so I was always trying to figure out if I was teaching them in the ways that they could learn. If a test felt too hard, I told my students that I wanted them to tell me that. In fact, I told them, sometimes the standardized tests actually did ask questions that were above their grade level (truth) and I would never blame them for not understanding something they hadn’t learned yet!

This kind of messaging is even more important during a pandemic. You can be honest with your kids. This kind of disruption, on this scale, hasn’t happened since the 1918 pandemic! They are experiencing things that their parents and their grandparents (and probably their great-grandparents) never had to. They are brave and resilient and right now, going to school and doing their best, no matter what score shows up, is more than enough for any grade level. (is this too Pollyanna-ish? I really believe it but I am HUGE on confidence etc)

Build community: Our communities, in every way, have taken a hit during the pandemic. I heard one mom talk about how her preschooler said, very matter-of-factly, “I remember when I used to have friends.” He’s not the only one who feels that way; plenty of adults and older kids have felt like they’ve lost touch with their communities. Getting to know your child’s teacher and the other parents will likely make you feel better about sending your child to school. Volunteering opportunities are different in every school right now, but if you’re able, that’s a great way to get to know other families.

Also, teachers are a part of our community. I’ll be honest; teachers are dreading this school year, as much as they love their students. Teachers had to learn a whole new way of teaching and it was as hard as them as for the kids. Many teachers, of course, were dealing with their own family illnesses and deaths in the last year and a half. No matter what was done last year, teachers got a lot of criticism. Some parents were upset that their kids had to wear masks while others were upset the kids weren’t back in school. We were all at the end of our rope—and beyond—and parents were terrified for their kids’ physical and mental health. Unfortunately that often came out as anger at the teachers and many teachers are still reeling from the vocal minority of parents who blamed them for so many things.

So, as a teacher, I’m telling you: we love your kids. We want your kids to be safe, to learn, and to be happy. We are also in a profession that is exhausting and taxing at the best of times, and we are definitely not in the best of times. So, build a team with your children’s teachers. They want to know what is working for your child and what is hard. They want to know how they can better help your child feel safe and learn. They may not have control over everything, but approaching them as a team member and not an adversary will make a world of difference (and honestly, you may get a new friend out of it; I can’t overstate how many friends I have who started as students’ parents).  

Create routines:
The last year and a half has been constantly changing, as we’ve learned more about the COVID-19 virus. Kids of any age need stability and when everything feels up in the air, they look to their parents. Bedtime routines can be very comforting, no matter how much children hate going to bed. Going to bed at the same time every day, with the same routine will make them feel like there’s something that can be predictable and controlled. If prayer is part of your family tradition, you can add prayers for safety and a fun day at school. If it’s not, affirmations are helpful, or saying good-night to family members and friends who aren’t there but are important to kids. Older kids like to be more independent of course, but you can still set a routine for them, including getting ready for bed and how long they can spend reading before bed. It’s a good idea to check on phones, and maybe leave them to charge overnight outside the bedroom, no matter how old your child is. Teachers often see kids who wake up during the night to sneakily use their phones and come to school exhausted, and all emotions are harder to deal with when you’re tired. 

Practical steps in keeping kids safe: 

 Masks, masks, masks. Ironically, I forgot to include this in my first draft because I am so used to masks now that I didn't even think about it! However, I know this isn't universal. I happen to live in an area where masks will be required in schools but many places are not requiring them, and this will require some serious talks with your kids.

The students I have worked with over the summer have, overwhelmingly, pointed out to me how unfair they think it is that adults expected them to be the ones who"were bad at wearing masks." I've seen exactly the opposite, and there's a reason. Kids generally rebel against rules that make no sense to them but when the logic is explained, they often do what is best for most people. Masking is no different.

Depending on your kids' age, you can just tell them that masks are really helpful to keep themselves and other people safer from getting sick, or you can go into the science and show them videos about how effective masks can be. If your child is going to a school without a mask mandate, it can be a lot harder, because they may not want to stand out. Getting a core group of friends to agree to wear masks no matter what anyone else does can ease the peer pressure, and some kids will react well to the idea that they're standing out because they're making much better decisions than others. Of course, you may just have to go the old-fashioned route of getting siblings, classmates, or teachers to tell you if your child isn't wearing a mask in school, but it's always more effective to get your child's buy in.

 Handwashing: While handwashing has been proven to be much less important in preventing COVID than masks, it's a good practice to keep up for general hygiene and staying well during non-pandemic years too. All school facilities are different. While many of them have added handwashing stations and hand sanitizer, schools are still facing funding concerns and may not have the adult-to-child ratio needed for younger kids to wash their hands effectively. It can’t hurt to ask your child’s teacher about the hygiene procedures (but please remember that teachers are also under considerable stress when you talk to them!) put into place. But you can also prepare your kids at home.

Little kids love for anything to be made into a game. Figure out how long you want them to scrub your hands and find a song to sing quietly to know when they're done. "Baby Shark" is a great one because you can add verses, but make sure they know to do it in their head if they're washing hands in the classroom because no teacher wants that earworm! Send your child to school with back-up supplies in case the line at the sink is too long for them to get to lunch or the school runs out of soap. Hand wipes and hand sanitizer are both very effective if used correctly.

We need to help each other: We’re all in this together in a school community. We’re all in this together as a greater community. If I can be of any help or support, let me know. If you just need to hear that you are not failing as a parent, if your student needs to hear that they’re normal and this *is* hard, or if there’s anything else I can do, I’m here to listen. 



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