Physicians throughout Northeast and Central Wisconsin are encouraging students, teachers, and staff to continue with COVID-safe behaviors as they head back to the classroom this school year.

“It’s important for parents to keep in contact with their child’s school district to stay updated on what safety protocols will be in place this fall,” says Dr. Long Nguyen, a family medicine physician with ThedaCare Physicians-Wautoma. “Mask-wearing and social distancing are still best in an uncertain environment.”

“Masks decrease the risk of all viruses,” adds Dr. Sarah Wypiszynski, family medicine, Ascension Medical Group – Koeller Street. “Other healthy habits to help prevent the spread of infection include frequent hand washing – especially after coughing, sneezing, or touching your face – and coughing or sneezing into your elbow.” She also recommends if children are sick, they stay home and do not spend time around others. “For children ages 12 and older, getting the COVID-19 vaccine can help protect your child and give them confidence in their safety going back to school.”

While many doctors believe it’s best for students’ health to be back in the classroom – supporting their social, emotional, and physical development – precautionary measures still need to be taken. They note the recent increase in positive COVID-19 cases in the Fox Valley, and the subsequent new CDC masking guidelines and recommendations for the 2021-2022 school year. The agency now recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. The state Association of School Boards is allowing local districts to decide their own policies about masks and social distancing.

Meantime, pediatricians and family physicians say parents play a big role in students easing back into the classroom in a healthy way.

Do a “feelings” check.

Parents should check in with kids about how they’re feeling, Dr. Nguyen advises. It can be a good idea to share how you’re feeling yourself, in simple terms. “You might say that you are concerned about the virus and feel confident the vaccine is doing its job. Parents also can talk about their own feelings of awkwardness about getting back to social situations, adding that it will get easier as time goes on.”

Dr. Nguyen adds, “Also reinforce the idea that both you and your child’s school are monitoring the situation, acting according to guidelines, and will make adjustments as needed.”

Other children simply might need extra time to return to in-person learning because of physical reasons or special needs. Dr. Nguyen advises parents who have children with conditions that compromise their immunity or have trouble with transitions to keep in touch with their provider and child’s school.

Keep close watch of your child’s mental health.

Some anxiety is normal, but Dr. Nguyen suggests parents watch for withdrawal, deep anxiety in social situations, or a change in behavior for their children. “Those changes might indicate the onset of depression in these continued challenging times,” he said.

Dr. Wypiszynski notes kids are likely dealing with lots of different emotions heading into a new school year: excitement to see friends, nervousness about going back in person, fear about the virus, anger about new rules that they might not like, or any mixture of these feelings. “They need to feel cared for by their parents, teachers, and communities and that their feelings matter.”

Physicians say if you’re worried about your child’s mental health or see signs of mental health struggles, reach out to your child’s health care provider to schedule a virtual visit. For urgent needs, call 9-1-1 or the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Take time to listen.

Kids want to know their concerns are being heard, so experts say take time to listen. “Behavior challenges can be a very normal part of how kids handle changes,” Dr. Wypiszynski adds. “Trying to create a routine and set consistent expectations can help kids feel in control.”

School and community programs are restarting with sports, clubs, and after school activities now being options. “Encouraging your child to spend time safely with friends will help them adjust back to school. Safe ways to do this include outdoor activities, taking advantage of the last of the summer weather and beautiful fall days, or small group activities indoors and masked,” Dr. Wypiszynski suggests.

She notes children respond better to praise, so if you see your child doing something positive, tell them that you are proud of them. “Even simple things like recognizing that they handled something challenging with resilience can help them feel supported and comfortable coming to you when things are hard. Also, parents modeling good behavior and habits for their children will help them handle this transition.”

Dr. Nguyen concludes: “Getting children back to the classroom can help give them the sense of normalcy that they need right now.” If you’re concerned about any behavioral issues with your child, your provider can offer referrals to therapists or wellness resources that can help.