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Back to school amid COVID:
What if I’m not ready?

Fact-checked with HomeInsurance.com

Table of contents

As the fall approaches, schools across the United States are planning to reopen despite active COVID-19 outbreaks in many areas. Understandably, some parents feel confused about how they should best protect their child as they encounter conflicting information from different sources. While the right solution may look different for every family, you can take steps with your children to help reduce risk once the school year arrives.

Talking to your kids

Choose your words wisely

Deciding what to tell your kids about coronavirus (and how to tell them) can be a major challenge. How do you find a balance between communicating the information your child needs to stay safe and not overwhelming them?

A good place to start is by asking questions to find out what your child already knows. They may have picked up more details than you think by overhearing conversations among adults or from siblings and peers. From there, you can fill in knowledge gaps and issue corrections as needed.

To avoid putting unnecessary stress on younger kids, avoid volunteering any information beyond what will affect their life at home and school. Of course, your child is likely to have additional questions, and you must make it known that you’re available to answer them. When they do ask, be patient and receptive, providing clear, factual answers. We all know that kids ask the darndest things, so if you’re not sure about the answer to a specific question, don’t be afraid to say so.

Above all, remember that the words you choose are as important as how you say them. Try to explain things in a way that helps them feel safe while still communicating the truth. Kids might not always understand everything you say, but they’re excellent at picking up on tone and underlying emotions.

Lead by example

Once you’ve talked to your kids about COVID-19, it’s essential to follow up on your words with actions. Your kids will mirror your behavior, keep this in mind as you make decisions regarding your safety as you carry out daily activities.

First and foremost, your attitude matters. It’s normal to feel fear and uncertainty, but try to remain as calm as possible. Younger family members will have a much easier time staying composed if they see you doing the same.

You should also make sure your kids see you taking practical steps to stay healthy. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom, before eating and when returning home. To make sure those tiny hands spend enough time under the tap, try picking a handwashing song that your kids can sing while lathering up. Use a hand sanitizer with an alcohol content of 60% or higher when soap isn’t available.

There are also practical hygiene manners that should always be followed but are more important now than ever. If you need to sneeze or cough, make sure you do so into a tissue then throw it into the trash and wash your hands. If you can’t get to one fast enough, the inside of your elbow works, too; just avoid using your hands as this is an easy way to spread germs.

When you’re outside of the home, follow social distancing guidelines by staying six feet away from others whenever possible. Since most children don’t know how far six feet is, you can practice at home with a fun game where your child earns a prize by guessing whether an object is more or less than six feet away.

Wearing a mask in public is another important safety measure that both you and your children should observe. According to CDC recommendations, children over the age of two should wear a mask. If your child is old enough to talk to you about COVID-19, they’re probably old enough to wear a mask.

Don’t overlook mental health

In addition to protecting your children’s physical health during the pandemic, you should also keep an eye on their mental health. Kids show signs of stress and anxiety in different ways than adults and may struggle to verbalize their emotions. With this in mind, there are a few signs you can look for that might suggest your child is distressed.

One common sign that a child is having emotional difficulties is acting out behaviorally at home or school. They may also lose interest in activities they usually enjoy or exhibit changes in eating or sleeping behaviors. Many kids begin having extreme reactions to small stressors as a result of the generalized uncertainty they feel. Some will even complain of feeling physically ill when they are experiencing anxiety. Even if you suspect that this could be the case, you should take symptoms seriously and treat them as if a physical ailment causes them until this has been ruled out.

Going back to school

Many schools return to the classroom in the fall, either with a hybrid schedule or full time. If your child is preparing to go back to school, there are things you can do to help reduce risk.

The risks

In light of what we know about how coronavirus spreads, there are risks associated with sending kids to school. The average classroom size is more than 20 children in the United States, which means social distancing will be challenging in most schools without restructuring. Still, the CDC concludes that the benefits of returning to school outweigh the risks for the majority of students. But this doesn’t mean that going back to school will look the same. You and your children should prepare for some major changes as administrators enforce measures designed to keep students healthy and safe.

Keeping them safe

First and foremost, educate your children on safety guidelines and encourage them to follow these rules. The CDC has issued these guidelines for children and parents as the school year begins:

  • Keep your children home when they are sick or have had contact with someone with COVID-19.
  • Have children wash their hands frequently, especially before meals, after using the restroom and when returning from outdoor playtime.
  • Practice respiratory etiquette such as coughing and sneezing into a tissue.
  • Wear a mask. Face coverings are recommended for school-age children.
  • Bring meals from home and use disposable utensils.
  • Keep a distance of at least six feet apart when possible in classrooms and on buses.

In addition to following recommended guidelines, there are a few extra precautions you can take:

  • Ask questions. Keeping in mind that teachers and administrators are overwhelmed right now, don’t be afraid to respectfully ask what measures are being put into place to protect your child’s safety. For example, you should find out what the protocol will be if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19.
  • Have a family member drive the kids to school to minimize close contact with others and ease the burden on school buses.
  • Supply plenty of hand sanitizer for your child to use throughout the school day. Put travel-sized bottles into their backpack and lunchbox to make sure one is always within reach. Keep extras to replace lost bottles.
  • Send kids to school with supplies that are marked with their names. You’ve probably received a back-to-school shopping list, but ask your child’s teacher for a list of additional supplies that might be shared.
  • Print and post the CDC’s safety posters for kids at home to serve as a reminder before you head out the door in the morning.

What if I don’t want them to go back

As school districts find ways to reopen for the fall, many parents wonder whether the measures being taken are enough. According to a countrywide survey by the National Coalition for Public School Options, more than two-thirds of parents are concerned about sending their children back to school and may consider keeping them home.

This isn’t an option for everyone, especially parents who are returning to work and have limited childcare options. On top of this, many families lack the resources required for home education;  for example, if multiple children in the house need access to online learning, this means you need a separate device for every child and the internet bandwidth to support them. Still, switching to home-based learning may be an option you want to consider.

What are my options?

Options for parents who don’t feel comfortable sending their children back to the classroom depend on the school district. Some have chosen to provide distance learning options, but this isn’t available everywhere. If your district isn’t offering remote access to classwork, your only other option is to homeschool.

Due to decreased enrollment, there have been reports of school districts preventing parents from withdrawing their children. In many cases, this may simply be an issue of staffing and a lack of sufficient manpower to process paperwork in a timely manner. If you’re having trouble, have a conversation with school administrators to find out what is causing the holdup. Once you’ve ruled out bureaucratic delays, you can contact the Home School Legal Defense Association for resources and information on next steps.

Homeschooling

Homeschooling isn’t for everyone. Taking responsibility for your child’s education demands an enormous devotion of time and energy, not to mention making sure you comply with legal standards.

Laws regarding homeschooling vary widely by location. For example, New York is highly regulated, requiring advance notice of your intent to homeschool, submission of an Individualized Home Instruction Plan (IHIP), carefully maintained attendance records and annual assessments of your child’s learning progress. On the other hand, homeschool laws in Texas are more lenient. All you need to do is formally withdraw your child from their current school and follow a written curriculum that covers math, reading, spelling, grammar and good citizenship.

Use the HSLDA homeschool laws map to find specific rules in your area. Keep in mind that while certain subjects like history and science aren’t legally required in every state, your child won’t be able to apply to colleges without them.

Aside from the curriculum, there are ways to create a learning environment at home to help your children succeed. One new homeschooling mom set up a dedicated space in her kids’ playroom with a child-sized desk, books, an easel and supplies they might need. Having a dedicated area for schoolwork helps with focusing by eliminating distractions in other areas of the home. But, as this particular mom notes, learning doesn’t only have to only take in your mini classroom. There are endless possibilities for kids to learn through hands-on activities around the house and in the backyard.

Pandemic Pods

As parents struggle with the choice between sending their children back to the classroom and educating them at home, many are turning to a middle ground. Some families are pooling resources to form pandemic pods. These groups typically consist of three to 10 children whose parents take turns overseeing lessons or share the cost of a private tutor.

One of the major benefits of a pandemic pod is that it reduces the number of students your child comes into contact with on a daily basis. Pods can also alleviate some of the negative aspects of homeschooling, like isolation from peers.

However, there are also some potential drawbacks to consider. Participating in a pandemic pod means that other children may be in your home for one or more days a week. If anything happens to another child at your home, such as an injury from a trip and fall, you’ll be held liable and can be sued by the parents. To make sure you’re protected financially, take a careful look at your homeowners insurance policy, and consider purchasing more liability coverage to cover the additional risk.

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