It’s back to schoolwork in the classroom this fall, which is good news after many students experienced more than a year of virtual or part-time, in-person learning.

“Returning to school is ideal for our children in terms of learning and socialization,” said Dr. Abby Smolcich, a pediatrician with ThedaCare Physicians Pediatrics-Darboy.

But getting back into the routine of leaving home to learn might be a challenge. Safety needs are more on the mind when packing the school backpack versus pre-pandemic times. “Teaching children good habits to protect themselves and others will help ensure a safer transition,” Dr. Smolcich adds.

Note School COVID Protocols

Masks, social distancing, vaccinations and more. “It’s important for students and parents to follow school policy or recommended protocols to protect yourself and other people against COVID-19,” Dr. Smolcich said. “The vaccine is still not available to children under age 12, and while children tend to experience fewer serious symptoms of COVID-19, they can still get sick from COVID and pass the virus to others, including vulnerable adults.”

The CDC recently announced new masking guidelines and recommendations for the 2021-2022 school year to protect students against COVID-19. The agency now recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. Parents also should determine for themselves whether their children should return to a classroom environment.

Create a COVID Prevention Supplies Checklist

Families can create a COVID prevention supplies checklist that works for the child’s age.

  • Face mask. Basic surgical masks or cloth masks are acceptable at most schools. Children can pick out their own masks or parents can help them make their own. Masks should be personalized to ensure they’re not mixed up with anyone else’s.
  • Mask holder. Children should have a safe way to carry masks when not in use, such as in a plastic bag or plastic container.
  • Hand sanitizer. Make sure it has at least 60 percent alcohol in it.
  • Tissues. These are good for any sniffles.

“Keep each child’s supplies labeled carefully to avoid confusion,” Dr. Smolcich said. “An extra bag with a mask and sanitizer could be kept at the school in the child’s locker or cubby, just in case.”

Schools may already provide some safety items such as extra masks or sanitizing stations. Parents also can call the United Way 2-1-1 line to be confidentially connected with community resources that offer free health care supplies. Another Be Safe Wisconsin partner, Compassionate Home Health Care, also helps families obtain cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items that are needed to stay healthy.

Review Safe Mask-Wearing

Spending the summer mostly outside can mean kids are out of practice when it comes to wearing masks, especially for long periods of time. It’s important parents practice safe mask-wearing with their children, ensuring they have a good fit, are comfortable, and help create good habits before starting school.

  • Cover face carefully. Parents should remind students to keep the masks over the nose, mouth and chin.
  • Remove mask safely. Remind children to wash their hands if they remove or touch the outside of the mask. “Explain that the outside of the mask is where viruses will be caught, so you don’t want to touch that part,” Dr. Smolcich said. “A better way is to remove masks by the elastic, and to fold the mask so that it’s inside out and stored so it isn’t touching any surfaces.”
  • Parent modeling. Children pay close attention to what adults do. Parents can encourage mask-wearing by first modeling well and wearing their own. Worn masks should be stored safely until they are washed or thrown away following each use.

Get into the Routine of School

“Talking about your routines and practicing your routines will help children feel ready to go on day one,” addsDr. Sarah Wypiszynski, family medicine, Ascension Medical Group – Koeller Street. She suggests ways to get children involved and help them feel in control by having them help pick out their school supplies, their first day outfit, or create their school to-do list.

  • Pack up the night before school. Experts also recommend kids create a habit of packing backpacks or school bags each night. Make sure all the items from the list above are included in their bags, so they can wake-up, pick-up and head-out.
  • Set a new sleep/wake schedule. Dr. Wypiszynski also suggests moving bedtime and wake-up time earlier, if kids have been staying up later than normal. “Moving bedtime by 10-15 minutes per night can help prevent rough nights during the transition.” Have kids practice wearing their masks to make sure that they have a good fit, are comfortable, and to help create good habits before starting school.

Comfort with Safety Talk

Make your child feel comfortable heading back to school knowing school administrators and teachers are doing all they can to provide a safe environment.

“While we need to talk to children about COVID-19, we also do not want them going into school scared or feeling that school is only about COVID-19,” Dr. Wypiszynski suggests. “Sit down with children at a time when you can focus, without other distractions such as phones, and ask what they have heard about COVID-19 and what feelings they have going into the school year. Ask what questions they have and try your best to answer them.”

Listen and Allay Any Fears

How to talk to your children will vary depending on their age. Dr. Wypiszynski makes these suggestions.

  • For little kids. Talking about germs and focusing on what they can do (hand washing, masking, staying home when sick) can help them feel in control.
  • For older children. Ask them what they know about COVID-19, what they have heard online or from friends, and what makes them nervous can help guide the conversation.

Seeking out resources from trusted sources can help give parents talking points, too. The CDC has a resource for parents to help their children cope and better understand what is happening. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry also has guidance on talking to children about coronavirus.