Kids are headed back to school – whether that’s in person or at home – and the pandemic is still spreading. That’s unnerving. So, let’s start with the good news. And yes, there is some.

  • Children don’t seem to catch or spread COVID-19 as readily as adults do.
  • Evidence suggests COVID-positive children and adolescents generally have only mild symptoms.
  • Kids with COVID-19 rarely require hospitalization.

At the same time, we know scientists are learning a lot about COVID-19 that’s concerning. For instance, teens seem to be easily infected and effective spreaders of the virus.

Dr. Catherine Ohmstede

With so much beyond our control, Dr. Catherine Ohmstede, a pediatrician at Novant Health Dilworth Pediatrics in Charlotte, recommends focusing on what we can control. “Wash your hands frequently, wear a mask and model that behavior for kids,” she said. “Your children do what you do and not what you say.”

Remind your kids of the three W’s: Wear a mask, wait 6 feet apart and wash hands.

And, find out what your kids know (or think they know) about COVID-19. Ask them to tell you what they understand about it. Correct any misconceptions.

Dr. Kelly Flett

Back-to-school basics

No matter where your child is learning, keep up with immunizations. “It’s more important than ever for kids,” said Dr. Kelly Flett, a pediatrician with Novant Health Eastover Pediatrics. “The diseases vaccinations protect our kids against have not disappeared with COVID-19, and it’s even more important to take steps to prevent other respiratory illness such as the flu.”

For remote learners

  • Build social interaction into your children’s schedule.
  • Network with other parents.
  • Plan a variety of activities that include emotional and social learning to create some structure in the schedule.
  • Get elementary students outside 15 minutes before school starts to help them settle down. Give them “brain breaks” throughout the day.

For parents of in-school learners

School will look vastly different now than it did when kids were last there. “A lot of activities – including classes, if the weather’s nice – are going to be outside,” Ohmstede said. “Teachers will be wearing masks. They may even be behind Plexiglas. It will feel weird at first but will seem normal in a few days.”

Help prepare kids so it’s less of a shock. One way is to role play real-life situations. Stand close and ask to borrow your child’s pencil. Ask what she would do to protect herself while preserving a friendship. The answer: “Sorry, but I’m keeping my germs to myself.”

Other ways to help:

  • Be involved. Attend the back-to-school open house at your child’s school, and make a connection with the teacher.
  • Create a coming home-ritual to alleviate anxiety about bringing COVID-19 home. For instance, when kids get home from school, they should change clothes, maybe shower, just to switch gears.
  • Show young kids what 6 feet apart looks like. Flett suggests parents have children flap their wings like a bird and turn around in a circle to demonstrate how much space they should leave between themselves and a classmate. A hula hoop is another good way to demonstrate personal space.
  • Try creative play with younger children. Suggest they draw pictures of ways your family is staying safe. Build an indoor fort to keep the germs at bay and bring in favorite stuffed animals or toys.

A balanced life

Ohmstede began a routine with her two middle-school-age children early in the pandemic that may prove useful as we move into this new territory.

She calls this system the “Four Pillars.” The pillars nurture mind, body, spirit and social connections – the components of a balanced life. (You’ll see many versions of Four-Pillars practices in the world.) Each day before she left for work this summer, she left her children a checklist of chores and a reminder to tend to the four pillars. She asked them to report back at the end of the day. Here are a few ways to tend to each pillar:

  • Mental: Schoolwork, read books, work Sudoku and crosswords, take Zoom classes, watch documentaries.
  • Physical: Ride bikes, walk the dogs, hike, swim, jump rope, run.
  • Spiritual: Nurture your creative self by baking, painting, practicing a musical instrument; keep a gratitude journal; fold origami; build forts. “It’s whatever feeds you spiritually,” Ohmstede said.
  • Social: Call friends, cousins, grandparents; a moderate amount of TikTok, group texts and group Minecraft; make cards for neighbors; play games with friends via Zoom and have physically distanced outdoor visits with a few close friends.
Back-to-school COVID-19 PLAYBOOK

Reassure, but be realistic

Tell kids we’ll get this through together, and remind them about what we can control.

  • Answer questions honestly. It’s OK to say people are getting sick, but tell kids that following rules like hand-washing and staying home helps us stay healthy.
  • Recognize your child’s feelings. Calmly say, for example, “I can see you’re upset because you can’t have friends over.” Guiding questions can help older children and teens work through issues. (“I know it’s disappointing not to be able to hang with your friends now. How can you stay in touch with them?”)
  • Before you leave home, tell your kids where you’re going and how long you’ll be gone. Let them see you with your mask on.

Create healthy routines

Life may lack structure now. Creating routines gives it one. And children feel safe with routine, Ohmstede said. Break up schoolwork when possible. A schedule should follow a general order, such as:

  • Wake-up routines, getting dressed, breakfast and some active play in the morning, followed by quiet play and snack to transition into schoolwork.
  • Lunch, chores, exercise, some online social time with friends, and then homework in the afternoon.
  • Family time and reading before bed.

TLC and ‘positive discipline’

GEtty family school stress
Your job is hard. School can be hard. Managing stress, picking battles will be especially important this year as kids head back to a school year we never could have imagined.

Children won’t (or can’t) always tell you what they’re feeling, Ohmstede said. “Praise them more than you otherwise would. Give them extra hugs and TLC. Give them a little more grace than usual.”

Kids show stress in different ways. Very young children may regress. Children who were previously using the potty on their own may begin having accidents.

  • Redirect bad behavior. Sometimes children misbehave just because they’re bored. Find something else for them to do.
  • Reinforce good behavior. Point it out; praise success and good tries.
  • Use rewards and privileges to reinforce good behavior, such as completing school assignments, chores, getting along with siblings.
  • Know when not to respond. Ignoring bad behavior – as long as it isn’t unsafe – can be an effective way of stopping it.
  • Use time-outs. Start with a warning. Then, follow through. Tell kids what they did wrong in as few words (and with as little emotion) as possible. Then, remove them from the situation for a pre-set length of time – one minute per year of age is a good guideline.

Acknowledge and manage stress – yours and theirs

These are tough times; be kind to yourself. Here are a few ways:

  • Get outside when you can. (Consider taking a work call on your porch or front stoop.)
  • Keep bedrooms a sleep sanctuary. If possible, do schoolwork in a separate, dedicated area.
  • Eat healthfully, and exercise regularly. An hour of physical exercise daily has the same effect as antidepressant medication.
  • Take baths and meditate.
  • Get outside as a family – walk, bike, hike – and turn it into a social occasion.

“Have outlets for your anxiety that your children don’t have to witness,” Ohmstede said. “Keep yourself together so you can be a reassuring presence for your child.”

Learn more about navigating back-to-school stress by watching this video of a livestream wellness webinar Novant Health hosted in early August.

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