Can our children return to school safely?

This is the million-dollar question!

By the time you read this, I trust that you will feel comfortable with the reopening plans implemented by the schools your children attend.  The COVID-19 environment is unpredictable. However, many concepts related to getting our children ready for school remain the same. Let’s take a look at the back to school (BTS) process for Fall 2020.

The BTS process is a challenging and essential undertaking that we go through every year. As parents, we plan and prepare for the new school year and wean ourselves off vacation mode along with our kids. We return to our school year schedules and create new routines and habits.

Since mid-March, our lives have been consumed by the pandemic and we are living a new normal. We are learning to live with uncertainty and have worked to turn adverse situations into opportunities.

Priorities and New Issues During These Times

This year, the #1 priority for parents, the government, and school administrators is keeping students and staff safe and the COVID-19 virus from spreading.  The #2 priority is helping our children navigate the complex emotions they face about returning to school.  The Novel Coronavirus has produced high levels of uncertainty that we have never faced before.

In normal times, pre-pandemic, there was a certain amount of anxiety, stress, or trepidation that children experienced about returning to school, starting a new grade, a new division, or a new yeshiva.  During the pandemic, there are a host of additional issues to address and questions to answer for children and parents:

Will parents be able to go back to work?

How will my children get to and from school?

Will our kids be learning remotely or in person?

What will the classrooms look like? Will there be sufficient spacing?

Will the children have to wear face coverings all day?

Will all our kids’ classmates or friends be there?

Where will the students eat lunch?

Since all learning was remote for the last four months of the prior school year, some children may have struggled with virtual learning, fallen behind in their studies, craved the physical connection with other students, and now feel apprehensive about returning to school.

Our job as parents is to be able to reassure our children, respond to questions, and initiate a conversation to tap into how they are feeling about the new school year.

Allow me to provide some hizuk, encouragement.  If you have been a parent for a number of years, you have been fine tuning your parenting skills. Please draw upon the stored resilience and experience you already have.

Please remember that we are not the only ones whose lives have been turned upside down. Our children are our heroes too!  They could not play with friends or see their teachers, and they missed that vital physical and social connection that they experience in school.

Tips for Getting Ready for This School Year

Below are guideposts for you to review and use that hopefully will pave the way for a smoother BTS experience.

Prepare for the Transition – This year’s planning includes lots of contingencies, but as parents we need to provide focus, direction, and structure for our kids.

Ease your children and yourselves into waking up and going to bed earlier before it is time for your kids to go back to school.  We all need to adjust to our new timetables and being well rested will support the entire family in getting back into the groove of school.  Are you all set with school requirements for supplies, uniforms, and gear?

Stay Updated and Educated – If ever there was a time to stay well-informed, it is now. Researchers continue to learn more about the Novel Coronavirus. Stay educated about COVID-19 by consulting state and CDC guidelines and teaching your children how they can be in control by washing their hands, wearing face coverings, and keeping socially distant.  You can ask for tips from your children’s pediatrician, school principals, and guidance counselors.

The NYC Department of Education has chosen a “blended learning” model for the fall, involving a combination of in-person and distance learning.  Most students will attend in-person classes two or three days a week and learn online the other days.  Social distancing and face coverings will be required, along with hand washing stations and new cleaning protocols.  Families will have the option to choose all-remote learning, for any reason.

Most of our yeshivot prepared reopening plans for different scenarios based on the current health situation and in accordance with the statutory guidelines.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that “school policies be flexible and nimble in responding to new information, and administrators must be willing to refine approaches when specific policies are not working.”

If the number of COVID-19 cases remains low, most yeshivot will likely follow either a full-time in-person schedule or a blended hybrid model of virtual and in-person learning.  In-person learning can be based on a cohort model. Students are divided into cohorts or groups that remain together throughout the day.

Some schools are offering five days of in-person learning and others are offering three or four days of in-person with the other one or two days virtual. Reopening plans may also include a phased in approach, building up over several weeks to four or five days of in-person learning.

Plans include protocols created by medical experts and will require collaboration between the school, the students, and the parents to succeed. Procedures must be strictly followed if a child gets sick in school (parents must be vigilant about not sending children who do not feel well to school). Examples of other requirements are:  Nurses will be on sight, a screening of students will take place upon arrival at school, there will be fewer students in each classroom appropriately distant from each other and wearing face coverings, plexiglass barriers may separate students from each other and students from the teacher, staggered lunch periods, no socializing near lockers, and more.

The common objectives of school reopening plans are to ensure the safety and health of the students and staff and uphold the schools’ core educational standards and values.

We also have to be prepared for the possibility of an uptick in COVID-19 cases, which would mean our children would be sent home for five days of virtual learning.

Listen and Validate – Practice active listening and validate your children’s feelings, fears, and anxieties.  Listening has become a lost art. Listen to what they are saying and perhaps not saying (their unspoken feelings). Help them articulate their emotions. If your children do not ask questions about COVID-19, you can start the conversation.  Allow them to talk about their worries and really listen and address those worries before school starts.  Inquire about their expectations for the new year. Yes, there are lots of questions that you do not have answers to.  Be patient, be honest, and help them feel safe.  For example, when talking to young children, you can say, “it’s normal to feel sad or scared.”

Be truthful but make sure your responses are age appropriate.  Be mindful about over-sharing.  Limit your children’s screen time and exposure to media.  Be calm when you talk about the pandemic.  Kids are smart and can read our facial expressions and tone of voice.

Be a Positive Role Model – Being positive and practicing gratitude are tools that are even more important than usual in response to the pandemic.  Be mindful of modeling an optimistic approach with your children.

Our kids take their cues from Mom and Dad.  If you are stressed or appear anxious or frightened, the kids will pick up on it.  Communicate hope and be confident but avoid making promises you cannot keep.

Take a few minutes and ask your children to list three things that they are grateful for in the morning or evening.  You can do it as a family at breakfast or dinner.  The kids will be surprised about how many good things they still have in their lives and so will you!

Practice Flexibility and Resilience – Other key principles in our parenting toolbox include resilience and flexibility.  As parents, we need to practice self-care and put on our own oxygen masks first. If we get overwhelmed and burnt out, we will not be there for our families.

Flexibility is one of the fundamental rules of positive parenting.  Do not get stuck on ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds.’ If something is not working do not be afraid to change it.

Children learn a lot from their parents’ resilience, mainly when they see how their mothers and fathers tackle adversity and uncertainty.

Itis so important to apply calmness, kindness, and consistency in responding to our children’s fears, particularly in these uncertain times.

The future is uncertain. What is certain is that, bezrat Hashem, our children will be learning once the school year begins, albeit in circumstances that cause significant challenges for all of us. Focus on the positive with your kids, and remind them that everything, including what will be with school and COVID-19, is in Gd’s hands.

Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach. Ellen works part-time as an entitlement specialist at Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. She can be contacted at ellen@lifecoachellen.com (www.lifecoachellen.com).