When schools first shut down because of COVID-19 in spring of 2019, parents wanted to believe the emergency precautions taking place were temporary. After all, how long could nation-wide school closures last?
Few could have predicted a year or more of virtual learning and having to balance work with providing for and educating their children.
And yet, here we are. A year and a half later, and many kids are just now returning to school—with a whole new set of school regulations to keep in mind.
Parents are burnt out. Kids have been deprived of face-to-face instruction and interaction. And even those families who have had the benefit of some in-person learning over the last year now recognize that the year to come won’t be anything like the pre-COVID years.
So, what will it be like?
Looking to the CDC
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has done everything in their power to keep up with the latest science when it comes to their recommendations for schools over the last year and a half. Of course, that science has been ever evolving, and new COVID variants have meant adjusting and readjusting again and again.
“I suspect that any guidelines are subject to change,” explained pediatrician and mother of two Kelly Fradin, MD, in a recent interview.
As of now, those guidelines recommend a return to in-person learning this fall. But they also call for:
- Masks to be worn by all unvaccinated students
- Social distancing of 3 feet or more between students and their classmates at all times
- Recommendations for any student, teacher, or staff with any symptoms of infectious diseases (to include coughs, runny noses, or temperatures) to remain home until symptoms subside and testing can be completed
Naomi Johnson Booker, Ed.D. has spent over four decades in public education and currently heads a charter school in Philadelphia. She said that parents need to be aware of the CDC guidelines, as well as those being put in place by their local schools, and they need to prepare their children for following and social distancing and mask-wearing recommendations.
“It is expected that another more dangerous variant will be around in the fall and will have a major impact on people who have not had the vaccine,” she explained.
And that may just be one of the most important things to remember: these changes to the school atmosphere are not being made to inconvenience or frustrate anyone. They are being made to preserve lives.
What About the Vaccine
As of now, the COVID-19 vaccination is only approved for children ages 12 and up. While clinical trials in younger children are underway, we don’t yet know when all kids will be eligible to receive the vaccine.
“Pfizer and the vaccine regulatory bodies are under pressure to get the vaccine out in time for school, but at this point though I am hopeful for early fall, approval before school begins seems unlikely,” Fradin said.
But what happens when that approval does come through? Could schools begin requiring vaccinations?
Fradin said probably not.
“Particularly while the vaccinations are under Emergency Use Authorization, it’s unlikely that schools make vaccines mandatory. Far more likely is that schools incentivize vaccination by asking unvaccinated children to continue to mask or quarantine following exposure,” she explained.
Changes to In-School and After-School Activities
The return to school may a look a little different depending on where you live and what your local school system decides based on local COVID-19 numbers.
“In school will begin as hybrid model,” Booker said of her own school reopening. “After-school will be modified to begin with as we address the most needed activities first, and then work our way back up to full schedule.”
Meanwhile, other schools are jumping right back in with their doors wide open. And Fradin said that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I hope that children will resume full activities in the fall. When communities face concerns about surges of COVID-19, I hope that distancing, cohorting, using outdoor spaces, testing and masking can provide continuity for children and keep them in school,” she explained. “We have the knowledge and the resources to prioritize children’s safety while approaching the goal of resuming normal life.”
But that return to normal first requires children and their families to follow the guidelines being put into place.
The New Pickup and Drop-Off Routine
In the past, it may not have been uncommon for parents to pick up and drop their kids off directly at their classroom doors—particularly for younger kids who may not yet know the layout of their schools.
But COVID-19 has caused a few changes there as well.
“Many schools have pivoted to drop-offs at the door,” Fradin said. “While parents miss out on seeing the classroom, the stark transition works well for many children.”
Keep in mind, it isn’t just pickups and drop-offs that used to bring parents into the classroom.
“Some parents, myself included, miss volunteering in the school,” Fradin acknowledged. But she admitted schools and parents need to make a stronger commitment to safety before those volunteer hours should resume. “Before welcoming many parents in, schools should have a plan to require visitors to be vaccinated, tested or masked if planning to be around unvaccinated groups of children.”
On the Playground
Ask any elementary school kid about their favorite part of the school day, and they’re likely to tell you it’s the playground. The good news is, that outdoor play isn’t going anywhere.
“Outdoor time seems the safest part of the day,” Fradin said. “Though playgrounds can be chaotic, loud areas of close contact, typically the contact is brief and takes place in a well-ventilated environment. Just being outside likely decreases risk of catching COVID-19 by 20 times, so for many children the benefits of unrestricted play outweigh the risk.”
In other words: Let the kids play!
But remind them to keep up social distancing and masking while they’re at it.
Ding Goes the Lunch Bell
You can’t have kids in school for an entire day without feeding them. At least, not if you actually want them to get anything accomplished. But mealtimes also involve taking off masks and touching hands to mouths: both things that increase infection risks.
So how might lunchtime change as schools work to feed kids while also reducing infection rates?
“Global Leadership Academy Charter School provides family style dining as our schools is a ‘Healthy Choices School,’” Booker said of her charter school. “However, because of ongoing safety concerns related to COVID 19, we will have lunches in the classroom for time being.”
It’s a move many other schools are making as well. By keeping kids in their classrooms for dining periods, exposure to the rest of the school is limited and safety precautions can be better monitored in that smaller environment.
And the good news is: this can be done safely.
“Time spent eating together in close proximity is higher risk,” Fradin said. “But realistically, even in daycare classrooms where children ate and napped together with some distancing and common-sense precautions, we saw relatively low transmission.”
Some of those common-sense precautions might include:
- Ensuring kids aren’t sharing food
- Providing kids with hand sanitizer before and after meals
- Keeping kids at their individual desks while eating
Some risks can’t be helped—kids have to eat. But students and staff can help to minimize those risks as much as possible by continuing to make smart choices.
Preparing Kids for Mask-Wearing
There has been a lot of hemming and hawing over whether masks would be required this school year. But with COVID-19 numbers rising once again, more and more school districts seem to be opting for mandated masking.
“In our school, masks will be required,” Booker said.
Even if your child attends a school that won’t be requiring masks, Fradin recommends sending them to school with a mask on.
“I would advocate for masking based on metrics to help us estimate risk,” she explained. “If your local community, particularly teachers and parents of other families, are not vaccinated, it increases the risk your child will be exposed to COVID-19. If COVID rates climb in your area due to the delta variant or other reasons, masking would make sense.”
For kids who remained virtual all last year, getting used to all-day mask-wearing may be a challenge. But parents can help.
“It’s essential with children to eliminate any impression that masks are punitive,” Booker said. “Continue to stress participating in the greater good and respecting others.”
Fradin agreed. And she went on to explain that your children ae more capable of understanding this community responsibility than you may realize.
“I have been so impressed with children’s ability to see the big picture during the pandemic,” she said. “If there is a high-risk family member or a specific reason for motivating masking, most school age children can know and understand.”
She said you can increase your child’s willingness to wear a mask by giving them a say in what kind of mask they wear.
One thing parents need to remember is that their children are always watching. They are looking to you as their model for how they should respond to mask-wearing.
Are you being a good role-model, or are you setting an example that may put them in danger?
“Parents and caregivers can help by demonstrating mask use in public places where it’s required and educating their children that using masks is only temporary, and by participating, they are doing good for others,” Booker said.
It’s that mindset that will help get your children, and you, through this new school year.
“Readers should keep in mind that even in this stage, we are in this together. We got this far together, and we will conclude this pandemic era together,” Booker said. “Take the politics out of wearing masks, and most of all, take the social media rumor mill out of it all together. Trust the CDC and the government as they are doing their best to get life back to normal. Keep children educated, and make it fun for the little ones by using creative masks or masks representing their beloved cartoon characters. Be aware of the school’s policy regarding creative masks. Remind children we are doing this for the greater good and that means we could be saving lives.”
And remember: If you want schools to remain open, you and your children need to do your part to keep COVID-19 numbers down.
That means vaccinating as soon as you are eligible and following CDC and school regulations for keeping kids healthy and in school.