Transitioning Smoothly Back to Childcare and School
An Outside-In Approach
As COVID-19 has upended our collective habits, life has changed definitively, requiring a different approach for childcare centers and schools. Here are some questions and answers for helping both parents and kids feel as safe and excited as possible about going back to school.
Q: What’s one of the biggest challenges facing families as they return to pre-COVID activities?
A: Simply the amount of change that’s happened with our routines; our “givens” aren’t givens anymore. It’s not a given that we can go without masks. It’s not a given that age isn’t a factor in COVID transmission and illness. What we once thought was just regular, daily life now must be considered more carefully, with appropriate adjustments made. That said, there is still a very comforting familiarity with those daily routines that help us get through things like pandemics…so we need to focus on how to return to those touchpoints safely.
Q: What’s the first key step parents and caregivers should consider as kids return to school?
A: Consider an outside-in approach—start first with the overall facility and work your way inward. For example, as caregivers look at schools and daycare centers—whether brand new or former settings—they should definitely place health and safety at the top of the list—assessing the facility’s adherence to CDC- and local safety guidelines, their appropriate certifications, and licensures, their emergency contingency plans, the credentials of the teachers and so on.
States regulate health and safety in early childhood centers; additionally, most centers choose to participate in their state’s quality assurance programs which entail even more stringent guidelines around cleanliness and safety practices. Further, the strongest programs will undergo random inspections successfully by maintaining appropriate ratios, safety guidelines, certifications, training (CPR, first aid, fire safety, etc.), and supervision requirements. Finally, top facilities will have detailed emergency and contingency planning in place for the weather- or illness-related emergencies—now including procedures like isolation and notification in the event of COVID exposure or illness. Every center and school should have detailed guidelines about mask-wearing and cleaning- and social distancing protocol. All of these things should help put parents’ minds at ease.
Q: After ensuring a safe setting, what are other key considerations?
A: The next level in entails more of the fabric of the daycare center or school—how teachers plan to level out learning after offsite efforts, get kids “with the program” after being in flux for months, and offer behavioral support. Parents should feel comfortable with the facility’s plan to get everyone swimming in the same direction again.
Toward this end, parents will want to investigate the age-appropriate curriculums and other enrichment opportunities offered and get a feel for the teachers’ training and experience. The ones who’ve been in the trenches a while have a great number of tools and resources at their disposal to problem-solve creatively and build solidarity and cohesion in their classrooms. That is especially needed now, after kind of drifting academically for several months.
Q: And what about reassuring children who are starting school or childcare for the first time?
A: This moves toward the heart of transitioning smoothly—the human relations piece! If your child is starting at a brand new facility, it’s normal for all of you to be a little anxious…but there are things you can do to feel more prepared.
- If you’re able, try to visit (virtually or in-person) the new center or school—preferably more than once, if possible. The more children see their classrooms and teachers, the more familiar things will be.
- Talk through your new routines and how things will look and feel moving forward. Answer questions and come up with solutions together. If possible, adjust your schedule to match the upcoming one at school (meals, naps, schoolwork, etc.).
- Make it something to celebrate: Make lists and shop together, and ensure belongings and supplies are labeled appropriately before the first morning.
- Remember and remind how important socialization is for kids. Even with stronger health guidelines, it’s still a positive thing to explore, grow, and learn together.
Q: What about children who are returning to their former schools?
A: Not surprisingly, children have a ton of questions: Will they be safe? Will they be able to reconnect after being so disconnected? Will they be allowed to hug their besties? A lot of kids have anxiety about returning, which can manifest emotionally (outbursts, tears) and physically (sleep challenges, tummy aches).
The biggest help here is for caregivers to talk things through. Encourage kids to discuss their feelings while validating their concerns; it helps normalize a scary situation…especially if you share an instance when you yourself were anxious but made it through OK. Dismissing a concern (“Oh, there’s nothing to worry about”) isn’t helpful; remind them they’ve gone through hard things before and made it through. Finally, reiterate they’re not alone; we’re all in this together.
Q: What can caregivers do to keep their own anxieties in check?
A: It helps to remember that adults get to be human, too. This pandemic has been difficult for everyone, on multiple levels, and even more so if you’ve experienced illness or suffered a bereavement concurrently. Remind yourself you’re doing your best: Try to be as kind and compassionate to yourself as you would be to a beloved friend or family member. Be willing to ask for help and support from family, friends, other parents, teachers, or therapists, as needed. And try to keep checking in with your kids and yourself as you walk through this transition together: Every step forward is a success.