Parents read articles about it, you provide it every day in your classrooms: structure. Kids need structure in their daily lives, they thrive under it because it provides them with a sense of safety knowing what to expect and what’s coming next. But nothing has quite prepared any of us for the year 2020.
In the current “normal,” there is no structure – heck, the concept of time itself is a blur, and to reopen childcare centers, schools, and preschools, we need to put that structure back into place.
As your students continue to learn from home and the inevitable battles between exasperated parents and stir-crazy children continue to rage each day, it begs the question, “how can we assimilate children back into a structured physical classroom when it’s time to return to school?”
It’s going to start with a true partnership between parents and your professional staff, and that starts with an abundance of communication and advice from you.
Sharing your COVID-19 safety plan with families with plenty of advance notice will provide parents with the time they need to practice these precautions at home. This practice will go a long way to helping little ones assimilate to the “new normal” at school.
Designate a COVID-19 Champion for your school or childcare center
Appoint someone (it can be you) to be responsible for handling parents’ questions related to the safety and sanitation measures your organization is taking to keep their children safe. When you share your reopening plan, refer parents to this designated staff member for any follow up.
Knowing you have a plan in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will give parents peace of mind that you’re going to protect their children, and it reminds them of all the reasons they chose your program in the first place!
Pro tip: Let parents know that, when school’s back in, they can expect to receive regular, daily messages from your staff. Using picture and video messages, show them how well children are adjusting, what they’re learning, and how you’re reinforcing social distancing guidelines.
Help parents give children the facts
Just like it’s unhelpful for grown adults to receive mixed messages about COVID-19, it’s a setback in the global effort to contain the virus if children, too, don’t have an understanding of its causes and effects – especially if they’re going to be exposed to other children. Let parents know how you plan to respond to children with questions about the pandemic, and ask them to do the same at home so your message is consistent.
You can’t guarantee that each of your parents have been providing the same information to their children, but you can be a source of truth for parents by sharing with them reliable materials to help them explain COVID-19 to their children. Explain that your policy is your policy, and regardless of how you personally feel about how your state is handling the COVID-19 response, you need to adhere to certain mandates and guidelines in order to operate.
Of course, words like “mask” and “social distancing” alone may trigger some parents who have opposing feelings about some government mandates, but if those parents aren’t going to take your safety measures seriously, you may have to seriously consider not welcoming them back. The risk is too great for your business or the lives of everyone in contact with your school.
Establish and maintain a routine (as best as you can)
Routines give children a sense of control over a situation, and that control makes them feel safe and secure. Right now, it’s important to give them as much of that as we can to reduce their anxiety about COVID-19 and returning to the outside world.
Encourage parents to work with their children to schedule activities that will regularly occur throughout the day, such as outdoor play, virtual learning, and a set bedtime. Sounds easy, right?
Suggest that parents make a fun activity out of it, by setting alerts using Alexa, Siri, or the good old-fashioned alarm clock. Create a chart that lists the times, and make a grand display of checking who has an activity. Parents can participate by making some of the alarms their own, for things like laundry (my least favorite chore) or watering the garden, to show that even grown-ups have schedules and obligations.
Instill some social distancing practices
Although schools around the world are beginning to reopen, there will be many new guidelines to enforce, including social distancing. But how in the world do you enforce them among children, especially children who have only really been in the company of family for the past few months?
How, in a single classroom, do you keep children 6 feet apart? The more parents can demonstrate alternatives to what children are used to, the better. Try air high-fives in place of hugs, draw out what six feet looks like (sidewalk chalk can have a really creative role here), and attempt to reverse the lifetime spent reinforcing that sharing is a good thing. Providing good examples now will make it easier for them to understand when they are back in your building.
Practice with PPE before and once you reopen
The most recent CDC guidelines tell us that all individuals above the age of two should be wearing masks. For those of us who have been working mask-less from the comfort of our homes, donning a mask for a quick trip to the store can feel uncomfortable at best.
But these kids are in your care for hours! If your organization is requiring masks for children, you and your parents have a monumental task ahead of you to get them used to wearing – and even seeing – masks, not to mention not touching them, adjusting them, or removing them.
Without parent help and preparation, that first day back isn’t going to go well for anyone. Enlist parents’ help to make this adjustment easier by:
- Teaching their children how to take masks off and put them on. Now, we just said you should emphasize them not touching or removing them, but eating lunch or getting a drink of water is an exception.
- Making masks as a home art project with their children before returning to school.
Pro tip: Suggest ways to save those little ears from irritation that comes with prolonged use of masks with headbands with buttons. Consider this as a first-day-back activity.
- Making masks fun! Parents can be playful about their own mask use and inspire children to pretend to be doctors and nurses when they wear them, practicing on patients like Peppa Pig or a younger brother.
- Instructing children to sneeze and cough into elbows or tissues when masks are off. Let’s face it: no one can guarantee that those masks will stay on all day.
- Wearing masks themselves! Children are mirrors of what they see, and they emulate their heros. Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and even you will provide the best examples of responsible mask use.
Teach good hand-washing routines
It sounds rudimentary, but we all seem to be relearning this lesson these days. And some children may be more difficult than others to convince to regularly engage in this tedious – but necessary – task. Request that parents practice proper hand washing at home every few hours, especially after when first entering the house after playing outside or a quick trip to the store, as well as before and after eating – just like you’ll be doing in your classrooms.
To make it a little more tolerable for everyone, parents can try:
- Singing a 20-second clip of a favorite song to pass the time (it does not, I repeat, does NOT have to be “Baby Shark”). Perhaps a favorite sports team anthem, instead…
- Coloring and hanging a poster about hand-washing in front of the sink.
- Explaining to those stubborn ones about the importance of hand-washing with a creative (and a little messy) lesson. Put glitter on children’s hands, then let them loose on a playground awhile to see how easily germs are spread. After a few minutes of play, go on a glitter hunt to see all the places they’ve been on the play equipment.
Pro Tip: Emphasize that this is an outdoor activity. Floating that idea as an indoor option to moms who have been quarantined with little ones will NOT endear you to parents anywhere. They will think of you every time they find it in their houses FOREVER
- Using “when-then” when requesting that their child wash their hands. For example, “When you wash your hands, then you can have a snack.” This way, children have something to look forward to and may see hand-washing as less of a chore and more of a task they need to tackle to get something they want.
Pro tip: Remember that hand sanitizer (the alcohol gel one, nothing that foams up) works just fine, as long as you give it a moment to dry. Back in the classroom, this might be a great way to avoid crowding around the sink!
Take children’s temperatures on days they’d normally be in school
It’s recommended to check your staff’s temperature each day before they come in contact with families. Many schools and centers are also taking children’s temperatures, or they are relying on parents to do so and report any potential symptoms at drop-off. Parents can make this a less-scary habit by taking temperatures this each day that they would normally send children to school. This sidesteps the risk of the anxiety caused by that sudden change in routine when you reopen.
Practice alternatives to physical contact
Parents have likely already had to stop their children from getting too close to someone in public, but when the kids are back in the classroom, how will you stop them from touching the friends they’ve missed for so long? Here are some ideas parents can implement at home that you may even want to consider for class:
Suggest that parents can set up virtual play-dates for children with some of their classmates, and even have them connect through good ol’ snail mail as penpals. Don’t forget that your students are missing YOU, too, so consider writing a letter or sending a picture to students in your school or center. Bonus: kids feel super-special when they get mail addressed to them.
Continue to support parents when you reopen childcare centers and schools
This has been a rough year for all of us, and those at home balancing work and homeschooling could really use a lifeline. Above all else, check in with your families to see how they’re doing, and provide them with strategies to cope with the stresses of COVID-19 at home.
No one is quite certain about what the future holds, but in the present, your connection with families to support them through easing children through the difficult transitions from school to home to school is what’s truly important.