SALT LAKE CITY — Due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19, more than 421 million children worldwide are out of school.
Thirty-nine countries have shut down all their schools, and on Friday afternoon, Utah announced a “soft closure” of all public schools for the next two weeks, joining the ranks of Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon and the District of Columbia, which have all announced weekslong school closures to help prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. School closures are also in place in some areas of California, Washington and in other pockets across the country.
Utah’s soft closure or dismissal, rather than a hard closure, means teachers will remain in buildings to help with distance learning and allow food-insecure children to receive food and students with disabilities to continue to access services.
While kids may be excited about a break from school, parents are now tasked with managing kids at home all day for weeks, potentially months, while also juggling work and other family responsibilities.
Here’s some advice from medical and child experts on how to stay safe and make the best of a school closure.
Be positive, says Dr. Arthur Lavin, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. Rather than framing this as something catastrophic or terrible, parents can explain that a school closure is a way to help the community by reducing potential spread of the germs. “It’s not just that schools are closed,” he said, “We’re asking kids to help out.” In a situation where kids (and even adults) may feel helpless, giving them a sense of purpose is important.
Keep the same routine. Kids thrive on a consistent, predictable schedule, yet for many parents, “when stressful times come up, those are the first things to go,” says Blake Jones, an assistant professor of psychology at BYU who studies the impact of daily routines on kids’ health. Despite changes, try to keep life as normal as possible — eat dinner together, keep bedtime the same and get kids up in the morning like usual. Act like it’s just a couple of days off school, Jones says, rather than summer break.
Talk together. A school closure is likely to be stressful for both parents and kids. Talk to young kids in a way they can understand. As kids get older, parents should ask their children what they’ve heard and correct any misconceptions, says Stephen L. Brown, a professor in the Department of Population Health at Sam Houston State University in Texas who studies adolescent health behavior and mental/emotional health and stress management. Parents should monitor kids’ exposure to news because the “frequency of updates makes it seem worse than it is,” Brown says.
Offer reassurance. It’s important to remind kids that while people are getting sick and some are dying, they aren’t children. In fact, China, which has the greatest number of cases, reported zero child deaths under 19 due to COVID-19. This doesn’t mean you should promise your kids they won’t get sick, but reassure them that no matter what happens, there are plenty of adults who will help them, says Adrienne Carey, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
If children are concerned about grandparents or family members with health challenges, phone calls or video conferencing can help ease worries, says Brown.
Continue learning. After reassuring kids, it’s time to think about teaching them. In Hong Kong, where Lavin’s granddaughter lives, teachers have been doing online instruction for months. Some U.S. schools may offer online instruction or distance learning, but even without it, there are plenty of fun ways to keep your child learning, says Lavin. If you’re not sure what your child should be working on, email their teacher or check your school website. There are also tons of free educational resources online,
Recognize the loss. For younger kids, a school closure means they don’t get to hang out with their classmates or finish assignments they were excited about. For older kids, a school closure may mean that competitions, performances or trips they’ve been preparing for all year are canceled, says Lavin. Acknowledge that loss and allow your student time to grieve.
Practice social distancing. Many states, including Utah, have asked for limits on gatherings of more than 100, but even situations with a few dozen people may be something to avoid. “The real issue is large crowds in small spaces,” says Lavin. Teenagers may need to be reminded that just because school is out doesn’t mean they should congregate in big groups at the mall or local burger joint.
Go outside. While it’s important to avoid groups, “social distancing doesn’t mean you have to stay stuck in your house,” says Carey. Get outside and go on walks, bike rides or even to the local park — as long as you’re well and it’s not packed with kids. Even one-on-one playdates with friends are fine if both friends are healthy, she says, and if families stay mindful of people who may be at heightened risk for complications, such as the elderly or those with compromised immune systems.
Embrace the moment. Extended school closures will require flexibility and patience from everyone in the family. Rather than dreading it, consider it a time to grow closer, says Jones. Create a plan of fun things to look forward to — whether it’s playing a family game, making a craft, reading books as a family, watching a favorite movie or going on a hike. Get kids’ input for the plan so they feel excited about the choices. Unless medically necessary, Jones encourages families to avoid the temptation to splinter off into bedrooms and camp out on individual electronic devices.
Be realistic. Family time is great, but many parents will still need time to work — whether that’s from home or not. Be OK if your kids end up glued to Disney Plus or playing on the iPad longer than is normally allowed. Even with increased media time, parents can still set rules and require that practicing a musical instrument/playing outside/completing chores/reading a book, etc. be done before kids get on a device, says Jones.
Ask for help. For working parents who are struggling to find childcare, ask healthy family members or neighbors for help, says Lavin. He points out that when schools close, nurses may be pulled back home to care for their children. When appropriate and safe, families, neighbors and friends can and should offer support to those who need it.
Wash your hands and stop touching your face. Keep emphasizing proper “hand hygiene,” says Carey. That means thorough washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, not touching your face and sneezing into elbows, rather than hands. It may seem simple, but it’s the best way to keep everyone safe and healthy.