As the start of a new school year fast approaches, families in the United States are feeling the pressure. Conflicting public health messages and uncertainty about the current pandemic have transformed this year’s back-to-school season from a fun, annual ritual into a parent’s worst nightmare. While school districts grapple with reopening plans amid back-to-school season during COVID-19, parents are confused, and kids are stuck in the middle.
No parent wants to put the health and welfare of their family at risk. Yet keeping kids at home has its own risks as well, including learning loss and mental health issues. The risks for some students are even greater if they are disabled, at-risk, or low income.
Below is a simple, condensed look at what the back-to-school season during COVID-19 will look like. We’ll look at the risks according to the research currently available, the choices parents are being asked to make, and a few tips to help you and your kids navigate this unknown terrain.
The Risks of Back-to-School Season During COVID-19 According to Current Research
Based on research that has been done to date and case studies from across the globe, we are gleaning some insights into back-to-school season during COVID-19. However, new research is published frequently, and parents may want to monitor the CDC website and their local news on an ongoing basis to stay informed of new developments.
- One certainty exists: the virus will be present this fall. Experts agree that the current pandemic is unlikely to end until a vaccine is introduced. Yet such a vaccine isn’t expected until early to mid-2021.
- Until pharmaceutical companies create a vaccine, safety protocols such as social distancing and wearing masks are our only protection from infection.
- The safety of children and their families at school depends on two things:
- Adjustments made by schools to assure the safety of students and staff (see below).
- The level of community spread, which if high, increases the chances that the virus will be brought into the school.
- Schools around the world that have reopened had more success when they kept student groups small, required masks, and implemented some social distancing.
Recent Research Results
- In June 2020, at an overnight camp in Georgia, there was a total of 597 Georgia residents aged 6 – 59. Within 3 days of camp starting following orientation, the camp was closed due to COVID-19. CDC research found high positivity rates in all age groups (overall 44%) despite strategies to prevent transmission in place, with the notable exception of universal cloth masks.
- Earlier this year younger children were found less likely to be infected according to a review of five recent studies assessing the infection rates of COVID-19 across age groups. Four of these studies reported a much lower infection rate in children.
- Research published July 30, 2020, in JAMA Pediatrics suggested that children younger than 5 years with mild to moderate COVID-19 have high amounts of the virus in their upper respiratory system compared to both older children and adults. This means small children could be a cause of transmission.
According to previous global case studies, it was suggested that children in elementary school or earlier are less likely to transmit the virus. High school students indicated a higher transmission rate, similar to an adult.
- Masks work to stop the spread of infection. A recent incident in a Missouri hair salon found that two hairstylists, who were wearing masks and following CDC guidelines, served 139 clients before testing positive for COVID-19. However, no infections resulted.
School Options Being Introduced
As school districts across the country struggle to devise workable solutions, three main options have emerged this back-to-school season during COVID-19. These options are in-person learning, a hybrid schedule with both in-person and online learning, and fully online learning. In addition, schools are also making modifications to the academic calendar, including a delay in the usual school start date to accommodate any necessary changes.
Full In-Person Learning
This option involves your child attending classes at school full-time—much like prior to the pandemic—but with additional safety precautions such as daily temperature checks before school. Schools are trying to follow CDC guidelines, but it is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to implement them all. This means that some compromises are likely. See below for additional changes students can expect if they attend in-person classes.
Hybrid Remote/In-Person Learning
The hybrid option divides your child’s time between school and e-learning at home. E-learning options will vary depending on the location, but improvements are likely since the initial implementation of homeschooling options in March. This option allows for greater social distancing by reducing the number of students on campus at any time.
Fully Remote Learning
Many parents will also have the option to return to fully remote learning in the fall. Parents can expect some improvements based on what schools have learned so far. Live-stream classes and interactive learning opportunities are the most common types of fully remote learning. Schools may also address any technology gaps identified earlier this year, including computer hardware and Wi-Fi access for low-income students.
What Will In-Person School Look Like?
So, given the above information and school systems wrestling with translating CDC guidelines into workable plans, what will school look like for our kids as we head into back-to-school season during COVID-19? Below are some suggestions from the American Association of Pediatrics that school districts may implement.
Due to low infection and transmission rates and difficulties inherent with getting small kids to wear masks or social distance, school for our youngest will probably focus on the following:
- Frequent handwashing.
- Implementing cohort classes. This means that your child will interact with the same children in the same classroom every day to minimize the number of people they come in contact with.
- Spending as much time as possible outside.
- Social distancing protocols and mask-wearing for all adults.
- Limiting visitors to the school.
Risks of infection and transmission are slightly higher for this age group, but schools may find adhering to social distancing difficult. Also, younger students may have trouble correctly wearing masks.
- Frequent handwashing.
- Face masks may be required, either all day or at certain times (such as in the hallways), especially for older children.
- Desks may be distanced 3 to 6 feet apart.
- Cohort classes.
- Using outdoor spaces as much as possible.
- Social distancing and wearing masks for all adults.
- Limiting visitors to the school.
With studies showing similar infection and transmission rates as adults—although with much more mild symptoms—strategies at high schools will be similar to workplaces.
- Frequent handwashing.
- Social distancing or face coverings for all students and adults when not social distancing.
- Distancing desks 3 to 6 feet.
- Cohort classes. In high schools, this may entail teachers changing classrooms instead of students.
- Utilizing outdoor spaces as much as possible, especially during exercise or singing.
In addition to differences in the classrooms, riding the bus will be a different experience as well. If possible, parents should provide alternative transportation to and from school. This will alleviate pressure on the schools and increase the safety of your family.
- Buses may have fewer riders.
- Tape marking spaces on the seats where kids should not sit.
- Assigned seats.
- Face coverings for older children.
- Open windows when possible.
Traffic in the hallways will limit student interaction. Some modifications may include the following strategies:
- Eliminating lockers or assigning them by cohort to limit hallway use.
- One-way hallways.
- Physical guidelines or taped directions on the floors to guide students.
- Staggering hallway use before and after school.
Lunch presents special challenges, especially for children getting their lunches at school. Some strategies being suggested include those below.
- Frequent handwashing.
- Staggered lunchtimes.
- Social distancing.
- Utilizing outdoor spaces when possible.
- Differences in serving/packing lunch foods provided on-site.
One area of back-to-school planning that all schools will implement is a contagion plan. This plan will include actions to take if a student or staff member shows symptoms of COVID-19 and/or if a student/staff member tests positive for COVID-19. In addition to following CDC guidelines for school reopening during COVID-19, most states also have laws governing pandemic situations in schools.
According to guidelines from the CDC, some of the policies governing this back-to-school season during COVID-19 might include:
- Students/staff showing symptoms. Parents should expect that sick individuals at school will be isolated and sent home as soon as possible. After that, policies may vary from not showing a fever for 24 hours to showing negative COVID-19 test results before returning.
- Students/staff test positive. If an individual at the school tests positive, parents may see a variety of responses from isolating that student/staff members class cohort and deep cleaning of that classroom to a full school shutdown for several days to allow health officials to conduct a contact tracing investigation and the school to conduct a full deep clean of the entire facility.
In addition to understanding what actions will be taken, parents should familiarize themselves with the communication plan involved. When and under what circumstances will parents be informed?
Tips for Parents
While parents are being inundated information and conflicting messages, they must still help their children navigate this back-to-school season during COVID-19. Below are a few tips to help whether you’re sending them to in-person classes or returning to online learning.
Preparing for In-Person School
- Instruct your children regarding handwashing. Make sure your kids understand the importance of washing their hands and show them proper handwashing techniques. If they are old enough, equip them with hand sanitizer to use when soap and water aren’t available.
- Get your kids used to wearing masks. Chances are if your child is over five or so, they will have to wear masks at least part of the time. Make the situation fun by getting them masks patterns and colors that they like. Ensure they understand while masks might be fun, COVID-19 is also serious business. Let them play with the masks on, but not play with the masks.
- Explain to your children about germs and why they should care about hand washing, wearing masks, and social distancing to keep them safer from the germs. Using an age-appropriate strategy is important. Parents should avoid making younger children overly anxious, while older children may require mild discipline or rewards.
- Model appropriate behaviors! All the talking and instruction will do no good if the parents are not engaging in the appropriate behaviors themselves. Following your own guidance will improve the chances that your child will do so as well.
- Walk your child through the changes they are likely to see when they go to school, so they know what to expect. Talk to them about the different precautions that will be taken and what their responsibilities are to keep themselves, their classmates, and their teachers safe.
Preparing for Remote School
- Using what you learned before summer break, help your child set up a schedule. Just like a schedule helps keep work-from-home parents stay on track, a schedule will also help your kids. Involve your kids so you can come up with a schedule that will meet both your needs.
- Set up a designated workspace and equip your child for success. Make it fun and have them help you set up and decorate the space so it’s somewhere that they want to spend time. Also, ensure they have the technology they need for seamless learning. If you’re having a hard time affording it, there are programs that help narrow the technology gap. Be proactive and research what your options may be.
- Become familiar with the virtual learning platform that the school is using and get to know your child’s teachers. Make sure you know what the time, curriculum, and assignment expectations are and discuss them with your kids so they can prepare to meet the challenge.
- As with modeling handwashing and mask-wearing, modeling how to work from home effectively is necessary to promote compliance with your kids. Show them what hard work and diligence look like!
Implementing the simple steps above can reduce the uncertainty surrounding this back-to-school season during COVID-19. This will improve your family’s confidence and ability to cope, regardless of the situation. Stay in close contact with the school to stay on top of schoolwork. Also, monitor your child’s behavior for signs that they are struggling with. Catch problems early to make changes and adapt before they become significant and disruptive to their learning. By staying informed and flexible, both parents and kids can have a safe and happy school year.
Do you have any tips or concerns as a parent for back-to-school season during COVID-19 ? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to share your advice. We’d love to hear from you!
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