Education During a Pandemic: How Do You Choose when You have No Choices?

By: Amy Marschall, PsyD., Freelance Columnist

“We must resume in-person classes this fall!” “It’s not safe to go back to school!” “My children aren’t learning in an online classroom!” “Kids won’t be able to maintain social distancing.” “What about social skills?” “I can’t take off work to homeschool my children.”

With government officials pushing for in-person school and some doctors and scientists discouraging re-opening, it is a stressful time for parents deciding what the fall will look like for their kids. Even though most kids who contract COVID-19 do not develop severe symptoms, many American children are still considered at-risk, including those who have had cancer, illnesses such as diabetes, or are malnourished. One in six children in the United States live in poverty, placing them at high risk for food insecurity and malnourishment, and this population that disproportionately consists of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. These families are also less likely to have the resources to homeschool or place their kids in “learning pods.” This is without considering the fact that little is known about how much children contribute to the spread of the virus. We know that children can be vectors for cold and flu viruses, and a child who might not be vulnerable to severe symptoms could carry the virus to a loved one who is.

The COVID-19 pandemic already disproportionately affects people of color, specifically Black and Latinx people, with higher rates of complication and death in these populations across multiple states. There has been a lot of talk lately about parents figuring out what “choice” is safest or the best fit for their families, but the reality for many is that the options are limited at best, if not nonexistent. How is homeschooling possible in households with one parent, or where both parents work full time? Even if districts give the option for online learning, many kids are too young or lack the focus to self-direct without an adult physically present with them.

I think we need to call the situation what it is: many parents are not “choosing what is best for their family,” they are taking the only option on the table.

If your children are attending school in-person soon, now is the time to get them used to wearing masks. Our brains get used to sensations after a while and start ignoring them—were you aware of the feeling of your clothes on your skin before you read this sentence? The only reason we tend to be uncomfortable in masks but not pants is that we are used to wearing pants. Have them select a fabric and style that is comfortable for them, and have them wear it around the house for set times. Start with five to ten minutes and increase so they get used to the feeling. If the school allows, let your child choose a mask with a pattern they like, but teach them the importance of keeping your own mask to yourself.

Teach your kids the proper handwashing techniques to prevent the spread of illness and do practice runs at home. Let them choose a song to sing to make sure they are washing for the proper amount of time, and turn it into a game. This will both make them more likely to want to do all of the steps and remember what the steps are.

Talk to your kids about social distancing. I anticipate that most young children will struggle with keeping six feet between themselves and their peers, especially around friends whom they have not seen in months, but this does not mean we can’t try. Remember, kids are experiencing the same uncertainty and stress as adults during this time, and many of them will feel relieved or even excited that there are things they can do to help. Below are some books to help talk to kids about COVID-19, social distancing, handwashing, and going back to school. All of the resources below are free to download:

  • The COVID-19 Health Collection is a collection of children’s books by NABU, a children’s literacy nonprofit organization. Their children’s books include The Virus-Stopping Champion, which teaches kids how they can help stop the spread of COVID-19, and My Back To School Bubble, a book about social distancing in the classroom.
  • Many Ways To Share A Hug is great for kids who are struggling with not being able to show physical affection. It helps them come up with their own alternative to a hug that they can express while maintaining social distancing.
  • I Can Be Safe And Healthy By Washing My Hands teaches kids proper handwashing techniques and explains why handwashing is so important to stopping the spread of illness.
  • Wearing A Mask teaches kids why we wear masks and helps them feel comfortable in their masks. It also helps them feel less anxious about seeing other people in masks when they are out in public.
  • Stay Clear, Stay Clean, Stay Kind is a fun story about aliens that teaches kids about safety protocols, including handwashing, quarantine, and wearing masks.

With cases in the United States much higher than they were when schools initially closed, it is a scary time to send your kids back to school. There has been a lot of talk of “making the best choice for your family,” but this does not account for families who do not have options available to them. In this case, the best thing we can do is give kids the tools to be as safe and educated as possible.

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