by Erin Okuno
Starting school in 2021 will be a different experience than 2020, when almost all the schools in the country were remote/distance learning. This week, Seattle Public School (SPS) students are returning to classrooms, some for the first time in over a year and a half.
To help families and students prepare for the new school year, I asked educators to share advice and thoughts they want parents and caregivers to know as we head back to school with COVID-19 still prevalent.
Focus On Your Child’s Social and Emotional Needs
Students have experienced a lot over the last year and may have many feelings about returning to school including excitement, joy, anxiety, apprehension, and other emotions. Listen to your kid and validate their feelings. Sharing stories about starting school (including your own) or reading books about school are great ways to start conversations. Seattle Public Library and King County Library System also have tons of back-to-school books to help jump-start the conversation.
Monica Liang-Aguirre, a former teacher and early learning expert, reminds parents and caregivers to manage their own anxiety around starting school. Many parents and caregivers are understandably anxious about kids returning to in-person schooling with COVID-19 and the delta variant prevalent. It is important to not pass these anxieties to children. Steve Zwolak, of LUME Institute in St. Louis, reminds us to be emotionally present for children’s emotional needs and to invest in our relationships with children, especially during these big transitions. Steady relationships are key to helping children grow. Having age-appropriate and ongoing discussions about feelings and anxieties can help children, tweens, and teens learn new ways of communicating and coping with feelings.
Forget Everything You’ve Heard About ‘Learning Loss’
School counselor Elizabeth Swarny wants parents and caregivers to focus on what their children are feeling right now and not focus on “learning loss.” Teachers and principals know students will be entering school with very different experiences of the last year and a half and they are ready to support your student’s academic needs. Share with your child’s teacher what they did over the past school year — their strengths, both positive and challenging experiences, your goals for them this coming school year. Also share with your teachers what your child discovered this past year — a new hobby, deeper cultural or family connections, speaking more in their home language — these learnings are important and should be celebrated.
We also know many families experienced hardships this past year, including deaths, job losses, financial stresses, moves, food insecurity, etc. Please let your teachers know if something happened to your family so they can help to support your student. Many schools have staff who can support students and families by connecting them to additional resources such as food support, housing, social services, etc.
Let’s Talk About Face Masks
Multiple teachers I talked to reminded families to help their students find face masks they like and can wear all day. Teachers at all grade levels, from preschool to high school, asked that parents reinforce how important it is to wear a face mask properly — covering from nose to chin and to keep it on all day. Test the fit of the mask before the first day of school to make sure it is comfortable and doesn’t shift, fog up glasses, or tug on ears. Practice wearing it for longer and longer periods to ensure a child can build their tolerance. Also, talk with your children about WHY wearing a mask is important to keeping everyone safe.
Beacon Hill International School teacher Sarah Lorimer suggests packing extra masks of various types or styles (disposable, fabric, different shapes, etc.) so students can switch them out and stay comfortable. She also said for preschool- and elementary-age children to pre-tie knots so students can be independent. Put an extra Ziploc or other small bag in your child’s bag for used masks to bring home. During the summer, I saw how important this was when my own kid got her mask wet one day and another child had a bloody nose — all normal childhood events. Luckily there were extra masks around to switch to a clean mask.
Kristin Trout, a high school teacher, taught in-person during most of last school year and saw the value of face masks in preventing COVID-19 spread in her class. For older students, she also suggests packing mints for after lunch — no one wants to keep smelling their lunch in their mask. Many elementary schools prohibit candy in lunches, and this could be a choking hazard for younger students, so no mints for the younger kids.
If you can’t afford face masks, let your school’s staff know so they can help you find some for your student.
Along with face masks, practice and talk about other hygiene steps including proper handwashing for at least 20 seconds, staying socially distant, not hugging friends, not touching their faces, etc. The more parents and caregivers at all grade levels can reinforce the importance of these practices, the easier it is during the school day.
Many of us have been home or in different routines for the past school year. We all need to build our stamina, including students. Inclusive Education program specialist Michelle Mahurin in Federal Way says, “We are all going to have to get used to our stamina being challenged. We have been home for school/hybrid and free this summer, so returning to in-person learning with the expectation to keep a mask on and socially distant is going to be tough.” Practice the routines needed for school. Practice walking to school or traveling the school route. Practice staying socially distant. Practice wearing masks for longer periods.
Second and third grade teacher Becca Chase-Chen reminds parents that children need adequate sleep. Make a wake-up plan with the time your child needs to get up to get to school on time, (for example, 7 a.m. wake up for a 7:55 a.m. bell time). This means your child should be in bed no later than 9:00 p.m. For many students, these routines will feel different since during remote learning they could roll out of bed and be in front of their computers within minutes.
Be ready for students and teachers (if you live with one) to come home exhausted from school. Having grace with our children and each other will be important the first few weeks of school.
Several parents weighed in on my conversation about returning to school. There is a lot of anxiety about returning to in-person school with COVID-19 and the delta variant prevalent. One parent asked how educators will prevent bullying and handle questions about COVID-19 vaccination status, especially for age-eligible students who are unvaccinated. How will you handle conversations about COVID-19 if a student or their family test positive?
Families also want to know how best to communicate with you and how to support your classrooms.
Find the Joy and Be Patient
Corbin Busby, an assistant principal in Highline School District, shared: “[T]his school year won’t be easy but no school year is easy. I am reminding myself and my community that there will be joy and laughter. It will be important to support each other and take care of each other’s heart.” While there is a lot of anxiety and unknowns about the return to school, we should extend each other healthy doses of grace and patience. There will be joy in children finding their friends again, teachers reuniting with students, and the overall joy of learning. We need to support our students in finding normalcy and joy this school year.
- COVID-19 Testing — Have a plan and talk through it with other family members before the need for COVID-19 testing in case of exposure. Seattle Public Schools (SPS) will offer COVID-19 testing on-site at schools for students and highly encourages family members to participate as well if children are showing symptoms of illness. Talk to your children ahead of time about what the testing involves: a gentle nose swab (for SPS test), possibly isolation as you wait for results, and anything else you feel your child should know.
- College students — Several friends are sending their children off to college for the first time. One friend mentioned having a conversation with her family about how they would bring their student home if the college campus closed due to COVID-19. Discuss with your college-age student what to do in case they feel COVID-19 symptoms and how to find testing on campus or near the campus.
- Wash face masks — It is important to wash cloth masks regularly and to discard disposable masks when they are soiled. If your student needs face masks, talk to your child’s teacher or family support worker at the school.
- Pack a water bottle with a straw — These are easier to use with a mask on. Make sure it is labeled and goes home for a wash every night. If it stays at school, it will grow mold.
- Encourage your child to eat breakfast and lunch — Encourage children to eat meals so they don’t have to snack in the classroom and remove their masks.
- Have backup plans for school and childcare closures — While we all hope schools and childcare centers (including before- and after-school care) don’t close, it is good to think through backup plans on who can pick up children in case of illness and what you will do in case schools close for prolonged periods of time.
- Manage technology — Every SPS student will have a laptop issued to them. Some schools may have students keep it at school, others may send it home. Like last year, make sure to set clear expectations and boundaries around technology usage, including how to store devices and keep them safe, screen time limits, etc. If your family needs help accessing technology, let your school know.
Erin Okuno is the executive director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), a coalition of community based organizations, schools, educators, community leaders, parents and caregivers, and concerned SE Seattle residents working to improve education for all children, especially those in SE Seattle and those farthest away from opportunities.
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