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Common Questions Kids Have About Going Back to School During COVID-19

Back to school with mask

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  • As fall approaches, school districts around the country are beginning to announce their plans to re-open.
  • Some districts have the resources to offer a variety of options, including in-person, online, and hybrid versions of the school day, while others may have just one choice.

There remains a significant level of uncertainty about children returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Back-to-school is usually a time of nerves and excitement for kids—along with some relief for busy parents—but now, there are many new issues for parents to consider. Between health concerns, child care considerations, and work schedules, it’s a lot to take in—and the decision about how your child will return to school this year will be unique to your family.

Once you’ve landed on the best option for your circumstances, no matter what you choose, it’s likely your child will have questions about what to expect. After all, for most kids, school is going to look quite different this year than it ever has before.

In these unprecedented times when the future seems so uncertain, it can be tough to field the many questions your kid may throw at you–and it’s OK not to have all the answers (no one does). Here’s a look at common questions kids may have about going back to school this year, and what to say to them even when you feel uncertain yourself.

Can I Play With (or Hug) My Friends?

As humans, we’re wired for physical affection. Children are often even more touchy-feely with their friends than adults. It’s only natural for young kids to want to play in close proximity to their friends, hold hands, or hug. At this particular moment in time, however, it’s wise to encourage your child to find ways of connecting with friends that don’t involve close physical contact.

Explain to your child that, yes, they can play with their friends—it’s merely a matter of finding the right way to play. “Encourage outdoor activities for your children while the weather is still warm,” says neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD. “Go over things your child can do with a friend that doesn’t involve close contact.”

Outdoors during recess, kids can play kickball, jog around the playground, or play hopscotch. Inside the classroom, together-but-distant activities include working on art projects with friends using their own supplies, playing Simon Says, or bingo.

What If My Mask Is Really Uncomfortable?

Among adults, mask wearing has caused significant controversy–so don’t be surprised if kids have strong opinions about face coverings, too. Real talk: No one likes wearing a mask, and kids are likely to be vocal about their discomfort. What if your child finds their mask very uncomfortable or refuses to keep it on their face?

“Ask them to explain what is uncomfortable about the mask,” advises Hafeez. “Is it hurting their ears? Is the material hot or itchy? Do they feel suffocated?”

For each of these issues, you can likely find a solution. Itchy masks can be swapped for alternatives with softer fabric. If a mask makes your child feel hot, try switching to a lighter surgical mask. Masks with straps or nose bridges that dig into the skin may simply need to be loosened or have a headband or extra strap added. As for feeling suffocated, sometimes this sensation is more psychological than physical.

Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

Show [your child] YouTube videos of doctors demonstrating how their oxygen levels do not decrease when they are sitting or standing wearing a mask. Showing them proof that they will not suffocate should be very helpful.

— Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

It’s important, too, to approach your child’s mask situation with compassion. “Don’t try to pretend that this is ‘a perfect world’ or an ‘ideal scenario,’ says Hafeez. “Admit that this is something that has not occurred in the past 100 years and that adults are still figuring out the best way to handle this for children, and even for themselves.”

As you empathize, however, do convey the reality of the mask-wearing situation to your child. “Try explaining that although you know that it is not ideal, the downside is that they would need to stay home all day and not see their friends, and be in the house or apartment and miss the in-person learning and socialization experience that makes school so valuable.”

If mask wearing becomes a consistent problem for your child, contact their school to inquire about options for taking a break from masks throughout the day.

Is It Safe for Me to Eat School Lunch? 

Some days it seems like coronavirus could lurk in everything we touch. But here’s some good news: As of July 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no evidence that COVID-19 spreads through handling or eating food. You can assure your child that the safety of eating school lunch has not changed because of the coronavirus.

What If Someone at My School Gets Sick?

As schools develop safety protocols for their day-to-day operations, they’re also developing action plans for what to do if a child becomes infected with COVID-19. For your own peace of mind, do a little homework about your school’s intended response. This way, you can help your child understand what to expect if a classmate gets sick.

Encourage your child to take school one day at a time. If someone comes down with the virus, you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it—together.

Do I Have to Go Back to School?

Kids and parents have conflicting feelings about plenty of issues—and going back to school may be no exception. In some scenarios, a child may want to return to school before their parents feel it’s safe, while in others, a child may want to stay home when circumstances necessitate them attending in-person classes. Handling these differing desires takes some sensitivity.

If your work schedule simply doesn’t allow for a homeschooling or online option for your child, you’ll need to draw a firm line about going back to school. “The parent needs to explain how difficult it is to find and keep a job during this pandemic and that the child must do in-person learning. This should not be done in a harsh manner, but an honest, heart-to-heart talk so that the child does not view going back to school as a ‘punishment,’” advises Hafeez.

On the other hand, if there’s flexibility in your work-life situation, or if your child is old enough to stay home while you work outside the home, try to keep an open mind. For a child who has strong feelings one way or the other about returning to school, acknowledge that you understand the way they feel. Then take a hard look at what it would take to enable their preference. Is there a way you could try the option they want and see how things go?

I’m Scared. Will I Be Safe at School?

Depending on your child’s personality and individual experiences with COVID-19, they may be fearful about returning to school. While there is, of course, some risk involved in going to school, you can reassure your child that numerous precautions are being put into place to provide a safe environment for them.

Before school starts, go over all the safety measures your child’s school is implementing, as well as protective actions they can take themselves, such as hand washing and social distancing.

For older children with a better grasp of data, you might discuss the positive trends the virus has taken in your area. “If you are in a state whose virus numbers have lowered, emphasize that,” says Hafeez. “Also, point out that children rarely get seriously ill from coronavirus.”

Finally, talk with your child about the consequences of excessive fear. “Explain that a certain amount of fear and caution is necessary, but that we cannot live our lives in such an abundance of fear that we become paralyzed by anxiety,” says Hafeez. Don’t forget that, as a parent, your attitude sets an example for your child. The more you can exhibit a sense of peace and well-being, even in the face of fear, the more likely your child will feel comfortable and confident returning to school.

What This Means For You

When kids ask questions about what will or won’t happen in the future, it’s best to simply be honest, with a healthy dose of compassion. Remind your child that, no matter what may happen, you are there as a support for them. And although no one has a precise timeline for getting back to “normal,” you and your child can take comfort in the knowledge that these difficult times won’t last forever.

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