As the new school year approaches, experts in the fields of infectious diseases and mental health are sharing their advice about how parents can better safeguard a child’s physical and emotional health for the return to in-person learning.
Many parents have questions and concerns about going back to school during the coronavirus pandemic.
"I'm worried. I'm certainly not excited or as happy as I expected,” said Zina Goubran, of Simsbury, whose 7-year-old son, Adam, is entering second grade.
“It kind of scares me what he will feel and how is he going to react. I don’t want him to have bad memories,” she said.
"It's a little difficult to predict exactly how the school year is going to unfold,” said David Banach, an infectious disease doctor and hospital epidemiologist at UConn Health.
Dr. Banach is sending his son off to first grade in a few weeks with a few key items in his child's backpack.
Pack Masks & Hand Sanitizer Daily
“Masks are going to be critical. I’d recommend providing both a primary mask but also a back-up mask, just in case the primary mask becomes soiled or potentially misplaced during the school day,” Dr. Banach said.
Though proper and frequent hand-washing is best, Dr. Banach said hand sanitizer is a ‘must-have’ on this year's back-to-school shopping list. He said six to eight ounces of sanitizer per day should be enough.
"Hand sanitizer, also going to be critical. I’d recommend providing a small bottle of hand sanitizer with the child, but the key piece is going to be showing the child how to use it appropriately,” said Dr. Banach. “Really demonstrating appropriate hand-washing technique as well as the appropriate way to use hand sanitizer is going to be really important.”
Be Mindful of Shared Items
Dr. Banach also recommends reducing the number of shared school supplies.
“We do need to be attentive to shared items,” said Banach. “As parents, trying to provide single-use items, or at least individual-use items, your child will be using and really keeping to themselves throughout the school day is really going to be an added layer of safety for the child.”
Items that are touched by more than just one student should be wiped and disinfected often, Dr. Banach said.
Reinforce Proper Hygiene
“I have a son, who’s going to be starting in first grade and we’re already having those discussions,” said Banach. “Really focusing on how we’re going to wear a mask during the entirety of the day, hand hygiene is going to be a really big piece of it, ensuring that he knows how to wash his hands adequately.”
Importance of Physical Distancing
Banach also stressed the importance of physical distancing between students, especially during meal time.
"We know that in shared settings when masks are removed, that's going to be the highest potential for transmission, and really distancing is going to be critical,” Banach said.
When the school day is done, Dr. Banach said, a quick change of clothing may be in order.
"Once the child comes home, they're welcome to change out of their school clothes, change into something else and then putting those clothes in the wash right away,” said Banach.
Preparation for in-person learning is not just physical. Mental health experts said that parents should be getting their kids ready emotionally as well.
Wilson-Faniel, who is also a mother, emphasized the importance of communicating openly about any apprehension parents and their children may be having.
“Talk with your kids about their worries and their anxieties,” said Wilson-Faniel. “Create that space for them to be honest with what they’re feeling. That’s important because kids do have feelings and they are going through things as well. You want to be able to hear it so that you can normalize it for them and let them know that we’re all going through that.”
Explore School Safety Measures
Wilson-Faniel also recommends families take advantage of any online tours or virtual meetings with teachers that a school district is offering, so children can get a feel for the environment they will soon be in.
"That's one of the biggest things that kids can do right now because those things are happening now," Wilson-Faniel said.
“Parents should absolutely go through the list of protocols that your school districts are sending to you,” said Wilson-Faniel. “It’s important to do that because we want to encourage our kids to keep themselves safe; and others, teachers, staff, their friends. The only way we can do that is by them following those protocols.”
“Help your kids identify the positives about going back to school,” Wilson-Faniel said. “That’s important because they’ve missed out on a lot. The kids already have those positives. A lot of them want to see their friends again. They want to see their favorite teacher and staff members again. They want to be able to learn in a classroom setting where they can raise their hands and ask questions, so it’s important to remember those things as well.”
"I think it's fear. I think people are afraid of what's going to happen,” said Yanna Karabatsos, of West Hartford, who has a daughter going into senior year of high school. “I think once you start and see how you can manage it, I think it can work out.”
“I think communication is the biggest thing that needs to happen within families,” said Alison Lunde, who has younger children and resides in West Hartford. “Little baby steps, is better than nothing,” she said of the caution needed to begin this school year.
"Teachers here are amazing. They can do magic,” said Goubran. “So, I’m hoping for a miracle.”