Mother with son holding backpack The 2020-21 school year is going to look a lot different for students, teachers and families. Individual school districts across the nation are taking many different approaches to educating our children while also doing everything possible to keep students and staff safe from COVID-19.

Whether your child’s school is planning for traditional schooling five days a week, a hybrid model of some in-person and some online schooling, or going completely online, there is a lot to prepare for. Back to school is always a time of transition, and this year we can expect it to be even more of a roller coaster ride as children (and parents!) adjust to new routines.

So, what can you do now to ease the transition and prepare your child for what school will look like when class begins? A psychologist and physician offer tips to help your family in the return to learning – wherever that may be.

Open the dialogue now

Start conversations with your child about back to school. Ask what they know about COVID-19 and how it may impact their school year. Share what you know about what options your school district is offering or considering. Encourage your child to express their feelings – positive and negative. Are they excited about seeing friends? Worried about getting sick? Some of both?

Talk to your child with their age and maturity level in mind. The way you'll explain things to a kindergarten student will differ from a high school student. Listen to their concerns, reassure them that you and school leaders are trying to do what's best, and let them know everyone needs to be flexible as the situation changes.

Find out what they know

Your children – even the youngest – have probably heard something about starting school during COVID-19. Whether from the TV news, or overhearing your conversations, our kids know more about COVID-19 than we think. Ask them what they've heard, and correct any misconceptions they may have. Reassure your children that you will help them – no matter what.

Older children and adolescents may be worried about more than themselves, for example a parent or grandparent with significant health issues who lives with them and may be more susceptible to COVID-19. Teens may fear bringing the virus home from school or activities. Remind them to take precautions – i.e. wear masks and maintain physical distancing – but then try to let go of the worry.

Model positive behavior for your kids

It's an uncertain time in our world. Many have lost loved ones or jobs because of the virus and downturn in the economy. It makes sense that you and your children may be feeling fearful, discouraged or restless. It's important for you to model positive behaviors to improve mood and coping skills – including taking care of yourself.

Some behaviors to model for your kids:

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Eat good nutritious food.
  • Perform regular exercise and physical activity.
  • Reach out to friends and family to maintain connections.
  • Share your own strategies for overcoming worry with your children.

Practice now

No matter how your child returns to learning this fall, there will be an adjustment period. Instead of a harsh change – for example going from not wearing a mask at all at home during the summer, to wearing one for 8 hours a day at school – encourage your child to start practicing safer behaviors now.

Most children – even the youngest – can be gradually taught to wear a mask properly. Start practicing now to help your child become more comfortable and ease the transition back to school.

Perhaps they can watch an hour of TV or play an hour of games online if they wear their mask. Consider creating a schedule with times assigned to school work, reading, relaxing, etc. and adding more activities to the "mask-wearing" list every few days. By gradually increasing the amount of time your child properly wears their mask, your child (and you) will feel more confident when they return to school with peers.

Bottom line

Remember there is no right or wrong way to go about returning to school in these stressful times. At the end of the day, if you or your child are extremely anxious about returning to in-person learning, gather all the facts available to you, trust your instincts, and make a decision that feels right for your circumstances.

For support making choices about school options, read more factors to consider.

Jason A. Lewis, PhD, is a psychologist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences; Susan E. Coffin, MD, MPH, is an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases; both at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

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