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Tips for parents of children returning to school this fall

With younger children unvaccinated, and the Delta variant surging, schools are still figuring out the safest ways to re-open. Here’s how you can prepare yourself and your children.

At the beginning of the summer, many parents assumed that their kids would be going back to school — yes, literally back to school — in the fall. However, as the COVID-19 Delta variant continues to spread, many schools are holding off on making final decisions about how to proceed with the upcoming academic year.

“We have no clue how to plan for this school year,” says Tyler Tracy, Lead Web Developer at Instinct Marketing. His children attend school in a California district that is requiring all teachers to be vaccinated and all teachers, students and staff to wear masks, but has yet to communicate several key pieces of information to parents — including, for example, whether school lunches will be provided.

“No update on first day of school. No update on drop off and pick up. No info on school lunches,” Tracy explains.

How do parents prepare for a school year that, in many ways, has yet to be determined? How will you and your children navigate a fall that could include both in-person and remote learning? How can you explain to kids who might have been very excited to get “back to normal” that this school year might look a lot like the last one?

Looking for some back to school tips? Here’s what we learned from talking to parents who are currently in the thick of this uncertainty — and here’s how they’re trying to make life easier for themselves and their kids.

In this article:

Manage expectations

The best way to help your children prepare for the upcoming school year is by helping them understand that the next year could be very unpredictable. Lorie Anderson, a parenting blogger at MomInformed, is reminding her children that they shouldn’t pin their hopes on any particular scenario — whether that’s in-person classes, the opportunity to participate in a favorite sport or extracurricular or even the ability to sit next to a friend at lunch.

“My kids and their friends are looking forward to going back to school in the fall,” Anderson explains. “However, we are trying to manage expectations as Delta variant infections surge and many more schools consider mask and social distancing mandates.”

If your kids have been talking non-stop about how excited they are to get back to school and see their friends again, it might be time to have a talk about how the new school year could turn out to be completely different from what they’re expecting. Many students will be required to wear masks; many schools will continue to space desks several feet apart and work to maintain social distancing both inside and outside the classroom.

If the COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen, distance learning from home could continue to be the norm. Parents and kids should be prepared not only for favorite school activities and extracurriculars to be canceled, but also for in-person schooling to shift back to online learning.

“We have had several conversations with our kids about what to expect,” says Anderson — and she recommends other parents do the same. “Explain that while the pandemic is getting better, teachers and adults want to continue to keep kids safe until everyone is vaccinated.”

Help your young children process their anxiety

Back-to-school anxiety is common even during the best of circumstances — but you and your children might be a little extra anxious this year, and for good reason.

Maybe you’re trying to figure out how to handle another year of balancing your remote workday with your kids’ remote school day. Maybe your children are worrying about what it might be like to return to the classroom after a year spent at home. Maybe both you and your children are concerned about the possibility of contracting or transmitting COVID-19 — especially because the highly contagious Delta variant is reportedly sending more children to the hospital.

“These are strange circumstances,” says Alex Mastin, founder and CEO of Home Grounds. “It’s something that we never had to deal with, which makes it all the more difficult.”

Mastin is helping his children work through their anxieties by providing compassion and emotional support — and suggests that other parents do the same. This can often be as simple as listening to your children’s concerns and reassuring them that the trusted adults in their lives are doing everything they can to keep everyone safe.

Anderson agrees. “Assure [your kids] that adults are working to keep them safe. Remind them that they are doing their part in protecting themselves and their friends by wearing a mask, washing their hands and, if they are old enough, getting vaccinated.”

Mastin also recommends accessing mental health resources, including counseling. Both parents and children can benefit from having a safe space in which to share and process their fears, as well as the opportunity to learn essential coping skills that can prepare them to handle anxieties, uncertainties and disappointments.

Turn negatives into positives

On the subject of disappointments — be prepared for your children to express disappointment and/ or frustration around several aspects of the upcoming school year. Some kids may be disappointed that their school is not offering full-time classroom learning. Other kids may have thrived as remote learners and will be disappointed to go back into the classroom.

Help your children build resilience by teaching them how to turn these negatives into positives. Some schools, for example, might decide to hold classroom activities outdoors, where there is more space to socially distance and more fresh air to dispel any potential virus. If your kids are complaining about the heat, the dirt or the discomfort of sitting on the ground, give them a reason to think of the outdoor classroom as a place of possibility.

“Tell your kids that this could be even more exciting than the classroom,” Anderson suggests, “as teachers will come up with fun activities that use the world outside as a classroom.”

It’s important to keep your reframing realistic — first because kids are quick to pick up on when adults are being disingenuous, and second because kids will only develop this skill for themselves when they understand that it is based in truth. Yes, the scenario your children are currently dreading will probably not be as fun, as comfortable or as easy as the scenario they were hoping for. But if you help your kids find the positives and possibilities in every unexpected shift this year may bring, they might start looking for those possibilities on their own — and that’s the kind of life lesson few classrooms can teach.

The unusual circumstances might offer the kind of life lessons few classrooms can teach.

Be prepared for last-minute changes

If there’s one thing we learned from talking to parents about the upcoming school year, it’s that you need to be prepared for last-minute changes. Two of the parents we interviewed, for example, only learned that their school would be offering in-person classes after we completed the initial interview.

Tracy is still waiting to hear about specifics like whether school lunches will be provided in his district — and he’s expecting them to change. “The stress of having a last-minute store rush when we finally figure out what we need for this school year is hard on the parents and the students,” he told us.

Anderson is also preparing herself —  and her children — for changes. This includes transitioning from in-person learning to hybrid or remote learning. “Schools taking a hybrid approach to reopening will likely be the norm, especially early in the school year.”

Since we’re reminding parents to turn negatives into positives, we’ll end on a positive note. Today’s school-age children have spent more than a year dealing with unpredictable schedules, last-minute changes and postponed gatherings with family and friends. Many kids have also become skilled at following the public health recommendations that are issued and updated as we learn more about COVID and its variants. While nobody wanted the upcoming school year to be as unprecedented as the previous one, we’ve all spent the past year teaching ourselves how to handle it.

Which means that, in many ways, you and your kids already have all of the preparation you need.

Now all you have to do is wait for your school district’s next email.

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

Read more by Nicole Dieker

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