Photograph by izusek / Getty Images
Photograph by izusek / Getty Images

2020 back-to-school edition: how to navigate the transition

The upcoming school year is still evolving. Experts weigh in on how to prepare.

After this spring’s digital scramble to finish out school terms disrupted by COVID-19 closures, millions of children around the country are eagerly anticipating seeing friends and breaking out fresh school supplies.

Or not.

Because infection rates differ drastically in each region, back-to-school plans vary widely from state to state and even in adjoining districts: Parents are hearing everything from full in-person attendance to a hybrid of in-person and virtual instruction to all-online. That is, if their district has even announced the decision yet.

That leaves many families unsure of how to approach the new year. But if you’re concerned about the long-term impacts on your child’s academic performance, perhaps it’s a small comfort that even the experts aren’t sure what’s in store.

“There are sure to be long-term impacts from being out of school,” says Ebony Terrell Shockley, executive director of Teacher Education at the University of Maryland. “But those impacts are also difficult to measure, and we’re still learning what the long-term effects include—emotional, social, physical, and academic.”

Joanie Wiltbank, a first-grade teacher at Canyon View Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, takes a tempered view: Disruptions won’t last forever. “This is just a portion of their total academic career,” she says.

Parents are probably more anxious than kids, especially younger ones who aren’t as familiar with back-to-school traditions and routines. Take Emily Vestal Robinson, whose 7-year-old son will begin second grade in person in Williamson County, Tennessee.

“I think he’s too little to really grasp what’s going on, and I’m thankful for that, actually,” Robinson says. “He sees this as: This is what we do. Mom says it, so that’s how life is. He just takes life day by day, and hour by hour.”

Rachel Garner’s two children, 6 and 8 years old, will also start back to school in person this month in Knoxville, Iowa, where Garner works in contact tracing as a public health worker. She thinks the flood of questions will come once school is back in session and the full reality of the changes set in. “I don’t think it’ll hit them until they’re there,” she says.

Though it’s tough to prepare for the unexpected, here are a few strategies to prep your child for the first day of school in a most unusual school year.

Have “re-entry” discussions.

Parents and caretakers have been stressing safety and social distancing for months—but now is the time to think about shifting the conversation to reentering society.

Christy Tirrell-Corbin, executive director of the Center for Early Childhood Education and Intervention at the University of Maryland’s College of Education, says that just talking to kids about the different ways that we’ve learned to be safer is a good place to start. “Explain that in the beginning, doctors and scientists were trying to keep us safe by telling us to stay apart, but now we have learned there are ways we can stay safe while being with more people,” she says.

And gently stress to your child that the scientific understanding of the virus is evolving. “You can tell them that we know there are ways we can contain germs so that we can interact with each other, but how we interact could change as we all learn more about the virus,” she says.

Robinson notes her own prep work with her son: “We’ve been talking to him about what school will look like—that they won’t be eating lunch in the cafeteria, that P.E. and recess will be different, that there will be temperature checks,” she says.

Start practicing safe behaviors now.

For in-person schooling, get kids comfortable with wearing a mask for longer stretches of the day. Build up their stamina, Wiltbank says, so that by the time they arrive in class and must don a mask for hours, they’re already used to it.

If you’ll be using cloth masks, Garner suggests adding an iron-on label to write in your child’s name, and to remind kids that mask-swapping isn’t an option, no matter how much they like their friend’s design better. Consider ordering a custom design using one of your child’s artistic creations.

Parents can find some peace of mind knowing that teachers are in this as well. Instructors will spend a great deal of time setting safety expectations with children and going over new hygiene considerations and routines, “… just like we spend time learning to walk in line on the sidewalk,” Wiltbank says.

Set device use expectations.

If you’re in a virtual situation, Terrell Shockley suggests clarifying boundaries with your child: For instance, set designated computer or tablet hours for school, as well as parental restrictions on tempting apps, games, and websites during those times. Stress that online interactions in class (and at all times, really) must remain on-topic and respectful of others.

She also recommends building excitement by helping your child create a virtual background with a favorite artwork that they can debut during a class Zoom call, or by helping them customize their avatar icon for Google Classroom.

Tap your school’s counselor and other resources.

If communication from your school has been minimal, Terrell Shockley says reaching out is critical, especially if you’re in an all-digital arrangement and access to technology is a concern.

“Ask for resources you can access via a mobile device,” she says. “Most households have at least one smartphone.” Insisting that content be accessible on a variety of platforms can also help reduce gaps in learning opportunities for other, less privileged families.

Don’t forget about your school counselors—they might be able to advise on limited in-person instruction for families who need additional support. Counselors can also offer ideas for handling discussions with children about the changes in the school routine, academic anxiety, or social interaction concerns.

Create a “schooling” space.

All-virtual instruction presents extremely difficult challenges for working families, Terrell Shockley admits. But one thing every virtual-learning family should do is designate a “school space”: a corner, a wall, a desk, a student-only perch at the kitchen counter that stays tidy. Keep materials at eye height, so exploration can happen without a lot of adult help. Designate a study buddy, such as a sibling or friend via video call.

And if you don’t already have them: “Headphones will help everybody,” Terrell Shockley says, “and maybe snacks for everyone, too.”

Prepare to pitch in.

Interest in “pandemic pods” and tutor-sharing arrangements skyrocketed during the summer. But Tirrell-Corbin notes that while this is feasible for some families, it could exacerbate opportunity gaps for children whose families are already affected by poverty, lack of access to childcare, or inflexible work arrangements. If you’re participating in a pod so that kids can have some in-person interaction and instruction, consider subsidizing extra slots, or asking teachers at your school for recommendations for other kids who might benefit from inclusion, Terrell Shockley says.

Volunteering—a lifeline for many teachers—also looks much different his year. Tirrell-Corbin says any parent can volunteer online demonstrations that reflect your professional expertise or hobbies. She also recommends asking the teacher what resources—like one-on-one tutoring sessions or reading buddies, for example—he or she needs so that all students in the class have an equal opportunity.

Garner says she’s bought extra bleach wipes for each student’s desk, as well as for the classroom stockpile. One family in her school has also volunteered to collect and launder reusable cloth masks so that the school can provide them to any kid who needs one.

Expect more rigor.

The sudden pivot to digital in the spring shocked everyone—but teachers and schools have had the summer to strategize, prepare, and train. “We have a better idea of what skills and abilities we want students to walk away with in a digital space, and how to do that,” Terrell Shockley says.

Additionally, many schools are telling parents to expect a return to conventional grading, as opposed to pass-fail. “There will be more engagement with teachers, and more synchronous learning,” Tirrell-Corbin says. “Now everyone realizes this isn’t a short-term crisis. Learning experiences must be robust and engaging.”