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COVID-19: Preparing Children to Return to School

This pandemic has left all of us in a place of uncertainty and anxiety. Lately, children's return to school has been one of the most anxiety provoking and uncertain aspects of our collective return to "normal." If and when children return to school, there will be new safeguards in place to protect them and those serving them in school settings. In New Mexico, these could and likely will include mask wearing in the classroom, social distancing, modified recess, partial online learning, rigorous handwashing procedures, and daily screening for COVID-19 symptoms.


While many of these seem inconvenient, it is important to consider that the focus here is not just on children's health (which is, of course, extremely important), but also on the health of our community as a whole. Because evidence is suggesting that children can carry COVID-19 without having symptoms, it is possible for them to spread the virus unknowingly to vulnerable populations. In a classroom, students come into contact with shared materials, other children, staff at schools, and, by proxy, every other person that anyone in a schooling environment has contact with. That is to say the classroom isn't insular in terms of viral spread--if a symptomless child passes the virus to someone else, then that person comes in contact with their parents, grandparents, other teachers, etc., vulnerable populations could all of a sudden be at higher risk of contracting the virus with devastating symptoms.


Anyone who has worked with children or has children knows that following simple rules and guidelines takes a ton of practice. As adults, it is our responsibility to provide children with safe forums to practice the rules and guidelines that will apply to them when they return to school. Teachers will already be overwhelmed with creating both in-person and online curriculum, sanitizing their classrooms, teaching while maintaining social distance, health screenings, differentiating instruction, reformatting recess and other recreation times, etc. ad nauseum. The best way to ensure that everyone in our community is safe when students return to school is by practicing how to be safe in a pandemic inflicted world while children are still at home. Our responsibilities as adults include the following before children are back in the classroom: maintaining a positive attitude, showing children how to wear masks properly, practicing social distancing and assertiveness when someone comes too close to them, teaching and practicing handwashing routines, and explicitly explaining that their compliance with new regulations will not only protect their health, but also protect the health of their parents, grandparents, and the families of their friends, and, additionally, will help get schools to fully open faster.


Positive Attitude

Children take cues on expressing attitude based on the closest adults in their lives. As adults, we model our attitudes every day and children absorb the way we react to situations like a sponge and then behave in the same way. Though we may feel any number of ways about the return to school, it is not our child's responsibility to carry the anxiety that goes along with it. As adults, we are responsible for being honest with our children about what going back to school will look like as well as responsible for modifying our attitudes to demonstrate that the expectations of schools are valid whether or not we agree with or are inconvenienced by them. It is a lesson in acceptance for situations that are out of our control.


You do not have to modify your beliefs to modify your attitude. What is important, however, is that if you are speaking negatively about the safety measures schools will implement--your child does not hear it. If your children do not feel that you take these measures seriously, they will not take them seriously. Beyond creating a potential safety hazard, you may then also face repercussions from the school such as having your child sent home for non-compliance. Additionally, your child may face conflicts with peers at school if everyone except them is taking the new protocols seriously. Do not place your child in a situation where they will be ostracized. In terms of social development, children are seeking just the opposite.


In essence, it is not your child's job to navigate your emotions regarding school reopening. Their job is to learn safely and in a way that allows other students to do the same. The reality of schooling is that there will be safety measures in place. Period. Help your child navigate those measures with a positive attitude so that they can focus on their job--learning.


Masks

Getting a child to wear a mask for prolonged periods can be extremely challenging.

Now, imagine having to train 20 children at once to wear masks consistently for prolonged periods of time. Sound frustrating? This is the position many teachers are going to find themselves in when schools reopen. Instead of being able to teach, they are going to have to focus on mask compliance--unless students have already learned how to wear a mask before returning to school.


One of the best things you can do to help your child wear their mask is to get them a mask they like. The most important consideration here is fit and comfort. If children are wearing a mask that is too tight or too loose, they will constantly be fidgeting with it. I recommend trying several different masks with your child and selecting the one that is the most comfortable for them. You can modify certain masks by making the straps shorter and retying them if necessary. Out of all the masks I've tested, the most comfortable seem to be those that have straps that go around the back of the head. Earband masks can pull the ear forward, which hurts after a while.


In addition to fit and comfort, it might be a good idea to choose a mask that your child is fond of in terms of its look. You can decorate your own with pipe-cleaners, sequins, or puff paint.


To make a science connection, you could provide a demonstration about how a mask works. Fill a spray bottle with water and have your child spray it into the air unimpeded. Then, place a mask in front of the spray and remark about how the mask blocks many of the water particles. Explain that when people cough or sneeze, their mouths and noses essentially become spray bottles that put particles of saliva and mucus into the air. These particles can contain viruses, so wearing a mask stops the particles from reaching other people. Masks are more about protecting others than protecting oneself, so if everyone wears them everyone is more protected. This lesson also provides the impetus for a good discussion about empathy and showing we care for others.


Social Distancing

It is heartbreaking that children will have to social distance in schools. Kids love to hug each other and play together, so practicing how to show affection while remaining socially distant is important to allow children to continue their social development and demonstrate empathy.


One idea is to have children talk to their friends on the phone or through video conferencing to have them decide on contactless handshake routines they can use at school. I have seen children come up with very involved and complex handshakes, and they love to perform them for other people.


A student of mine came up with the idea to have a socially-distant sleepover campout. She said she wants to have a couple of friends over and each sleep in their own tent. If it's available to you, enacting an idea like this can teach your child that people can still have fun and remain apart.


Another important aspect is to teach children that it is perfectly acceptable to assert boundaries over their space at school. If someone comes too close, it is perfectly reasonable for them to remind their peers that they need more room. One good way to practice this is to roleplay and come up with pre-scripted responses for when someone gets too close. These could include sayings like:

"You are in my bubble. Please move back."

"Remember that we are supposed to stay 6 feet apart from each other."

"I do not feel comfortable when you are that close to me."


This practice teaches children that it is okay to have boundaries whether in a pandemic or not. It also encourages autonomy over one's own body.


Handwashing

Good handwashing skills are beneficial to children's health whether or not there is a pandemic. To teach proper handwashing, come up with an acronym for when your child should wash their hands. I like the acronym SCENT (S: sneezing, C: coughing, E: eating, N: noticeably grimy, T: touched something shared). You can say "smells like time to wash your hands!" in a silly voice to remind of the SCENT acronym. Children should wash or sanitize their hands after they sneeze or cough, before they eat, if their hands feel sticky or noticeably grimy, and after touching a shared item.


Empathy

It is a good idea to explicitly explain that these measures are in place for a reason and that they are a way for everyone to show that they care for each other. Though perhaps inconvenient or sometimes uncomfortable, following the safety guidelines at schools have the ultimate goal of ensuring that everyone is healthy.



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