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Back-to-School: The New Normal

How parents can help children prepare for the uncertainties that lie ahead

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The question of how school will look this fall looms large this summer. Will classes be in-person or via remote learning? If an in-person option is available, will it be safe? How does a family weigh the risks of social and academic setback against a virus we know so little about? How will kids thrive given another school year of social distancing and remote learning?

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The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly advocates for an education in which children are physically present this fall. As of late July, the Bend-La Pine School District rolled back its earlier announcement about bringing some kids back to school, and instead, began to make plans for mostly distanced instruction for students in the early fall. Kids in grades K-3 may have some in-person time, with every family having the option of signing up for 100% online classes.

Given the rapidity of change this year, I suspect there will be some alteration to that statement already by the time you read this article, though the basic question remains the same: How can families prepare children to start school this fall, and which is the best option for each family?

The abrupt shift to remote learning this spring came at great academic, social, and emotional costs. The lengthy time away from school and loss of associated supportive services for kids resulted in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits. Having no daily interaction with students, the school's protective ability to detect abuse, anxiety, and depression was removed.

Data from Europe and Asia indicate that children do not appear to be a significant reservoir of COVID-19, and transmission between adults appears to be more frequent as well as resulting in a more severe disease. Overall, sending a healthy child to school appears to be less risky than adults meeting for happy hour.

One thing we know for sure: schooling will be different for kids this fall. For those who go back, desks will be farther apart, and kids will likely be eating lunch in their classrooms. Teachers and students will be in masks, and there will be less movement within the halls. There will be lots of hand washing, with class schedules likely staggered to reduce the chances of creating crowded areas.

Preparing Kids for School

Parents can spend the remainder of the summer showing their kids the value of taking care of their bodies and their minds. Focus on the immune system by providing a healthy diet with lots of physical activity. Ensure they are getting enough vitamin D and zinc, while aiming for a regular sleep schedule. Encourage kids to make their own healthy snacks and spend most of everyday outside. Practice good hand hygiene. Find a mask that is comfortable for them to wear and help them get used to wearing it. Talk about ways to play with friends while maintaining some distance, keep playdates outside, and do your best to support the development of resiliency in yourself and your children.

For families that choose to keep kids at home this fall, find ways to support social interactions and time with other children. Keeping a consistent schedule that prioritizes exercise and healthy eating as well as consistent completion of remote learning assignments is key.

Pediatric offices are open and ready to see kids to help them prepare for school this fall. School-age children should have an annual check-up, so families can talk to their pediatrician about growth, sleep, behavior and have immunizations updated. Vaccination rates were steadily declining before the coronavirus pandemic, and the stay-at-home order resulted in many kids falling even further behind in getting immunized. Protecting kids against measles, whooping cough and flu will be extra important this year, as an infection with one of these vaccine-preventable diseases may make children more susceptible to complications from coronavirus.

One thing is clear at this point, and that is: we will be managing risk from coronavirus throughout the school year. Helping kids find a way to navigate the risks while supporting their academic and social growth will take our entire community. We've got this!

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