Health
a father helps his daughter put on her backpack at home before school
a father helps his daughter put on her backpack at home before school
a father helps his daughter put on her backpack at home before school

Back to School 2021: Helping Kids Get Ready and Stay Safe from Coronavirus

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After over a year of school closures and disrupted schedules during the coronavirus pandemic, children and teens are gradually returning to in-person learning. Resuming school is a positive step in returning to normal life. But children and their families may have mixed emotions about it, especially with coronavirus variants circulating, more COVID-19 cases among children and teens, and outbreaks in some areas.

Uncertainty about coronavirus risks and rules can complicate kids’ return to classroom learning. Also, the sheer impact of so many months away from normal socialization, as well as grief and loss, can leave some children needing extra support. Carisa Parrish, Ph.D., M.A., co-director of pediatric medical psychology at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, provides insights for parents and guardians.

Returning to the Classroom After COVID-19 — Mixed Emotions

Cancellations, long days at home and upended family routines due to COVID-19 have affected almost everyone, including children. It may not be realistic to assume that all kids can simply pick up where they left off and return to school without a hodgepodge of feelings, ranging from relief and happy anticipation to sorrow and apprehension.

“Some kids may experience excitement. Others may be depressed or have anxiety,” says Parrish.

“The past year and a half has been a whirlwind, and returning to class may stir emotions of everything they went through not seeing friends, staying home for an extended period or even the loss of a loved one,” Parrish says.

Tips for Parents

  • Make a plan when you can.
  • Accept that you and your kids may have a variety of emotions, and make space for those feelings.

Special Considerations — Children Who Have Lost a Loved One

With more than 600,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S., thousands of children have lost a parent to COVID-19, and many others have experienced the death of grandparents, caregivers or other important adults in their lives. Returning to school can add another layer of stress for children working through grief.

Parrish says it’s important for family members to unite in supporting grieving children, and to realize that loss and grief can be experienced in different ways.

Giving the child’s school a heads-up is helpful. “If the child has lost a family member, let people at the school know, to help them prepare for the child’s return,” Parrish recommends. “A bereaved child needs more eyes on them to gauge how they’re dealing with grief.” Adults at the school can also help the child acclimate, and help them deal with questions from classmates or other reminders of the loss.

Tip for Parents

Share your feelings with people in your support network, and encourage your kids to do the same either with you or with their friends. Understand that throughout the grief process you and your children are not alone.

School After COVID — Rules may be different

Because COVID-19 vaccines are not yet authorized for younger children, COVID-19 safety precautions may still apply to them in the school setting. Classrooms might look different now, with physical distancing measures in place that prevent normal interactions among kids and their friends.

Masks might still be required, which can be hard for younger children, especially if they see older, vaccinated kids and teens allowed to go without them.

“Younger kids may feel like it’s unfair that they still have to wear masks,” says Parrish. “Parents and teachers can explain to children that this moment in time won’t last forever. They’ll be able to take the masks off and enjoy more activities as soon as it’s considered safe for them.”

Tips for Parents

  • Help kids understand that some aspects of attending school will be out of their control, but that they will be able to handle them when they arise.
  • In your mind, walk through what you expect, and anticipate challenges. Go through the process with your children as well.
  • Parents may help set a positive example by continuing to wear masks with their children. It is a small effort worth making to keep kids safe.

Parents Concerned About COVID-19 at School

Kids aren’t the only ones vulnerable to feelings of uncertainty. For parents concerned about their children catching the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 at school, Parrish says seeking out good information and being proactive can help.

“Taking a look at the facts from reliable sources such as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) can help provide perspective on the risks,” she says.

Coronavirus vaccines are an important factor in kids’ safety. “Getting children vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as they are eligible,” Parrish says, “can offer them protection.

“If parents are concerned about the safety of the vaccines, there are good data out there that can put their minds at ease. The number of people, including children, who have been safely vaccinated is very reassuring.”

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Returning to School — Give it time

In general, Parrish says, it’s important that parents understand — and convey to their kids — that there is no one correct way to feel about returning to the classroom.

She points out that children tend to adapt quickly to new situations. “Even if they get overwhelmed the first day, they’re likely to get used to the routine over the next few days,” she says, adding that if children are particularly anxious, dry-run visits to the school can help them test the waters before the first day.

Parrish notes that some schools are easing the transition for younger kids who have spent a larger proportion of their lives away from other children. “Teachers are folding in procedures and activities with smaller groups of younger kids, setting up meet and greet activities and play dates,” she says.

Tips for Parents

  • Re-integrate gradually when possible.
  • Talk over how things are going throughout the transition back to school.
  • Help children identify what’s working and tease out less helpful aspects.

“Kids are so flexible and resilient,” Parrish says. “But, if feelings of anxiety persist for longer than a few weeks, it’s time to speak to your child’s school counselor, pediatrician or another medical professional.”

Scientist carefully insets a pipette into a test tube.

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

What you need to know from Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Published July 27, 2021