Q: What advice do you have for parents who are anxious about sending their child back to in-person schooling?

A: Parenting always involves lots of hard choices and decisions, but I can’t think of a time when so many parents were struggling with the same decision—do I sent my child to preschool? Usually the way to make a good decision is to learn all you can about the topic and make a decision based on facts. Well, that’s really hard to do right now, since we are learning more about the coronavirus every day! Here are some tips:

  1. Learn the facts. Social media is not the best way to learn about a topic as much of what is shared presents only partial facts or even outright misinformation. Search reliable websites such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov), the National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov) and the Florida Department of Health (www.floridahealth.gov).
  2. Consider the needs of your child. Does your child have special needs and is falling behind while not in preschool? Is he or she really struggling without the social interactions and structure of a preschool? Also balance their health- do they have health concerns that will put them at greater risk of illness?
  3. Also consider the needs of your family. Does the parent have to go to work and needs childcare? Is there a family member in a higher risk category due to health condition and/or age? There may be conditions in your family that make your choice very clear.

If you do decide to send your child to preschool or childcare, check the CDC guidelines for childcare centers and make sure your child’s center is following the guidelines. It will be helpful for your child if you model appropriate behavior like wearing masks, practicing social distancing and washing hands frequently. Children will follow your lead both with behavior and emotions. If you are calm, your child will learn to calm themselves. For children who are old enough, it helps to give them some sense of appropriate control- can they pick what they will wear? Can they brush their teeth before you do instead of after you? Small decisions can help your child feel a little bit more control- and can make your life easier too! Another way of giving your child some comfort is to talk with him or her about how things will be different when they return to school- they will not be able to hug their friends, the space may be arranged differently to promote social distancing and barriers may be in place. Adults and children alike benefit from predictability, it helps all of us feel safe and less anxious.

The “parent shaming” on social media or in communities can be very hurtful, there is always someone who disagrees with any parental decision. Whatever decision you choose to make, know that you have done your best to make the right decision for you and your family during a very difficult and uncertain time.

Nikki Daniels is the Associate Director at Champions for Children. She is a licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience working with children and families. Her focus has been on how to prevent trauma and how to minimize the impacts when it has occurred.

Q: How can I help ease my child’s fear about returning to school?

A: Talk about what your child’s school is doing to keep everyone safe. Talk to them about the importance of doing their part to stay healthy by eating a rainbow of fruits and veggies every day to boost their immune system, hand washing, wearing a mask, and social distancing.  Read about how hand washing and mask wearing helps keep the germs away.  Sing the Healthy Eating Song.   

 

 

Cathy Capo Stone is the Executive director of Cornerstone Family Ministries. Cornerstone is one of the largest sponsors of the USDA Child Care Food program in the State of Florida, serving 16,800 children nearly 5,000,000 nutritious meals with the help of the 160 childcare centers we sponsor in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Pasco and Manatee Counties each year.  We also own and operate our own accredited early learning center and lab school, The Rosa Valdez Center, which has been serving children in Tampa since 1892!

Q: What is the best way I can prepare my child for the new safety precautions being implemented at their school (i.e. mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing, etc) before they reenter the classroom? 

A: Children learn by observation, so lead by example! Practice handwashing frequently, but especially before eating and after going to the bathroom, coughing, or sneezing. Teach children to cover their cough or sneeze. Remind them to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water or use an alcohol based hand-sanitizer when soap and water are not available. Doing these things at home will reinforce them at school! Wearing a mask is one of the smallest and hardest things a child can do to help keep others safe. Start using masks at home during screen times (i.e. tablet, television) and also when out in the community to help with the adjustment. Involve your child in picking a mask they are excited about! Please remember, per the CDC, face masks should not be used in children under the age of 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or in anyone who cannot remove a mask without assistance.

 

Ashley N. McPhie, MD is a Pediatrician and the Director of Pediatrics for Tampa Family Health Centers (TFHC). TFHC is dedicated to providing high quality, accessible health care to the culturally-diverse community located throughout Hillsborough County. The Pediatrics Department at TFHC is committed to the health and wellness of our youngest patients – before, during and after COVID-19.

Q: How can I help my child readjust to the socialization that comes with being back in the classroom after months of distancing from friends and being home with me and/or just family?

A: Sending your child back to preschool or daycare is likely paired with lots of emotions. Among them may be excitement, worry, and hope for your little one to succeed. For your child, some may feel anxious about being away from you while others are eager to interact with individuals their own age. With all those emotions whirling inside, I want to assure you of one truth: everyone, children and adults included, have difficulty with socializing from time to time, pandemic or not. Luckily, there are ways to prepare young children for difficult situations that may arise while outside your care!

A child’s pretend play, is often considered fun and imaginative, with limited educational value, but that is far from accurate. Dr. Scott Kaufman, a human psychologist, notably emphasized the value of pretend play in his Psychology Today article stating, “research has increasingly demonstrated a series of clear benefits of children’s engagement in pretend games from the ages of about two and a half through ages six or seven.” Now, I could go on and on about how pretend play improves a child’s cognitive and language development, but to stay focused on the question at hand, I want to point out that it advances their social development as well.

You can use pretend play, to act out many interactions that a child might be unsure about, like visiting the doctor or dentist, but in the case of preparing them to go back to preschool or daycare, use this as an opportunity to teach them how to respond in difficult situations. For example, how should they respond when one of their peers says or does something they don’t like? What should they do when another child snatches something out of their hand? How can they express their desire to play with someone else? What strategies can they use to calm down when big emotions well up inside? Who should they go to when issues arise that they don’t know how to handle on their own?

Offering opportunities to role-play these interactions beforehand will help your child navigate difficult social situations and handle them the best way they know how.

 

Abby Ebersole has a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education and was a teacher in the public school system for four years. From there, she became a Family Learning Specialist at Champions for Children where she uses her teaching experience to share about the importance of early education in helping a child reach their highest potential.

Q: How can parents reduce anxiety and stress of returning to in-person schooling for their children after virtual learning for so long?

A: As an early childhood program coordinator and parent of two teenagers I am experiencing the anxiety and stress of making decisions between returning to in-person school vs. E-learning after being virtual for so long. The typical school year presents enough anxiety and stress on its own without the added concern of a pandemic. This year, school will look different for most children no matter what option they choose. In my experience one of the most important things parents can do to reduce anxiety and stress in their children is having open communication and honest conversations. These conversations could include:

  • Preparing for the new school year: What might be different? What might be the same?

  • Addressing fears your children have over what changes they are imagining and the fear of the unknown.

  • Discussing feelings and guiding them to express their feelings appropriately.

  • Being honest about not having all the answers but having the ability to nurture and guide them through all the changes.

When parents set the tone of conversations with calmness, compassion and empathy, their children will feel calm and know that their concerns are being heard and their feelings are being validated. Additionally, parents and children can prepare for the school year together. This can be as simple as watching the videos that the school sends out, becoming familiar with the virtual platform for E-learning, establishing a predictable routine for waking, school time and bed time, and practicing wearing a mask if they are returning to a school that requires a mask. Being prepared is powerful! I hope that these suggestions will help you and your child(ren) reduce their anxiety and stress when returning to school. Stay safe and be well.

 

Kari Allen is the Program Coordinator for the Family Learning Center, which is a program of Champions for Children. Kari has over 25 years of experience in child development, early childhood education and parent support.

Q: Are there certain things I can pack in my child’s bag that will help keep them safe at school?

A: Supporting children’s understanding of what is happening  is the best thing you can do. They are more aware and adaptable than you can ever imagine. Teaching proper hand-washing techniques, how to use masks effectively and visually showing what social distancing is, will support success.  At Zoo School, we have developed visual schedules for the children when they arrive at school so they know the revised process of entering school, as it does look different. Additionally, in collaboration with USF’s Program-Wide Positive Behavior Support, we have designed social stories on what students can expect, in an attempt to lessen the anxious feelings. As a mom of two children, this past weekend we enjoyed the outdoors at ZooTampa, we have a small reusable bag with wipes, tissues and a sanitizer to hang on to their bag giving them all the tools to support healthy practices. ZooTampa is a great example of a natural space that invested the time to create and implement a stringent and extensive modified operational plan that sets a new standard in our industry for safety and sanitation protocols. ZooTampa has not only adjusted how many guests may visit, but the manner in which they enter, traverse the paths and enjoy animal interactions in an expansive fresh air environment. My children’s essentials backpack allows them to be empowered to make safe choices; not to fear change but embrace and adapt so they may enjoy life in our new normal. ZooTampa safely welcomes back families and looks forward to providing families a safe space to reconnect. We know our community is resilient and will learn new and innovative ways to support a success 2020-2021 school year.

Jennifer Mclachlan is currently the Vice President of Learning and Community Engagement at ZooTampa at Lowry Park. Jennifer has over 20 years of experience working with young children and families both as an educator in the classroom and in management roles. She is the mom of two young children and an advocate for early childhood services and educational programs in our communities.

Q: How should we plan/talk about potential school closures if there is a significant outbreak of cases?

A: We understand that making decisions about your child’s care is personal and complex in our current situation. It is important to understand the impact of the pandemic on the operations of your child’s learning environment and be aware of the new protocols their program may have put in place. Therefore, we encourage families to openly communicate with their childcare programs about precautions they have taken to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Talk openly with your child about the importance of hand washing or wearing a mask, in a conversation appropriate for their age and understanding. Should there be an outbreak in your child’s program, Child Care Licensing of Hillsborough County has asked programs to follow the CDC guidelines for any outbreaks. Talk with your childcare program about their communications strategy around an outbreak.

 

Abigail (Abby) Perez is the Director of Family Services at the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County (ELCHC), which offers childcare financial assistance, information, and resources for families in our county. For more than a decade Abby has worked as a partner and advocate, collaborating with nonprofit organizations to ensure families and children have access to early learning and educational support in their community.

Q: How might social distancing and stay at home directives during the pandemic, impact a child’s development and learning?

A: Whether there are long-term effects experienced by children due directly to the pandemic or the policies communities put in place to reduce the spread of the virus, won’t be known until research has been conducted. However, we can rely on what is known about children’s development and how societies’ challenges differently impact communities from a socio-economic perspective, as guides.

Looking at children’s development, the consequences of missing school and social isolation will depend on their age, the environment at home and their personality or temperament. Children in the early elementary years and younger are still very much connected to their parents and primary caregivers. They are resilient when a secure, supportive adult is available. Though many social and emotional skills are developed through peer interactions, these same skills can be achieved through interactions with siblings and adults at home. All children need to feel safe, and the youngest get this through their adult caregivers. Safety and security are felt through consistent and predictable routines and experiences. Families with the ability to offer secure and consistent caregiving and environments, are likely to provide opportunities for learning through play and activities that will support a child’s overall development.

Alternately, young adolescents are not as reliant on parents and adult caregivers for their security. Instead, they are shifting to peer-focused lives where social experiences are increasingly important for their social and emotional development. Children at this age, however, are better able to engage in virtual learning, so provided they have access to computers and high-speed internet, they will be able to stay connected academically, though success will online-only learning will vary from child to child. The developmental and academic consequences for these children will depend on how long there is a disruption in school and direct socializing, which is currently a question without an answer. Consistent and predictable routines and experiences are still important for these older children.

Perhaps the children that might experience the most difficulty with these life changes are older teens and young adults who were expecting to actively separate from parents by going away to college, getting a job or moving out. Instead, they’ve needed to remain at home and go to school virtually, have had to move back home after already experiencing a level independence, or perhaps a job opportunity has been delayed or disappeared. Maintaining open communication, acknowledging frustrations and difficulties, setting clear expectations, and negotiating how to manage this unexpected shift in life, can offer support.

Parents and caregivers need to stay attuned to changes in children’s behavior, regression, altered sleep patterns, eating habits or moods and look for signs that children are stressed or experiencing mental health issues. Identifying possible issues is the first step in managing them.

No matter a child’s age however, families experiencing significant economic stress due to or exacerbated by the pandemic (unemployment, reduced hours, illness, etc.) will require support for very basic needs such as food, shelter and health care. Academics and socializing with peers are a luxury for these families that require community resources and public policy solutions for their success.

Children who live in communities with greater socioeconomic challenges have less access to high-speed internet, computers in the home and parents whose jobs offer work-from-home solutions. Instead, when parents are employed, they work in grocery stores, as laborers, in health care and other services that are essential to the economy and with variable schedules that don’t allow for flexibility that can actively support children’s virtual learning. In low-income areas where families can experience over-crowding and chronic under or unemployment, children are more likely to experience toxic stress due to exposure to food and economic insecurity, violence, homelessness and more. Toxic stress can negatively affect all areas of a child’s development and learning. For some children, schools are a safe place where respite and a meal are offered. Long-term school closure and virtual learning is devastating for these children.

There is no single solution or right answer in responding to the pandemic. Nor will the impacts on families and children be the same. Instead, the pandemic has exposed society’s challenges in providing every child in every community the same supports and opportunities for lifelong success.

Paula Wyne is the Program Director for Baby Bungalow at Champions for Children. She has expertise in child development and early learning. Prior to her employment at Champions for Children, she taught in an Early Childhood Education program at a college in Canada. She started her career as a Child Life Specialist, working with children and families in hospitals.

Q: How can I check in to see how my child is coping with returning to school if they are limited in their speech and language abilities?

A: Connect with your child in ways they love and respond to well such as lap reading, bathtub time, playdough, puzzles and side by side play they prefer.  Use those opportunities to share pictures and chat about past experiences of school with familiar items such as their teacher, the school building & logo, their backpack or special items that travel from home to school.  Chat about different feelings, using books and pictures that show emotions, giving names to those feelings and role-play the expressions. Focus on your child’s cues and reactions and expand upon those responses in a positive and happy manner.  Repeat this process often.  Short check in’s at first, always following your child’s lead. Follow up, when your child is ready, by reading books that focus on returning to school and show transitions such as arriving at school, saying goodbye, hanging up your backpack, and engaging in classroom fun, taking note of your child’s cues along the way. Replace the character’s name with their name in back to school stories.  Hug, cuddle, and comfort your child in ways that they respond to.  You are your child’s first teacher, and know your child best.

Jenn Siffermann is the Associate Vice President of Programs for Easterseals, Florida.  Mrs. Siffermann has a M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction for Early Childhood and has  20 years of dedicated service to the education of young children including those with special needs and the needs of the family.

Q: How important is outdoor time for children returning to in-person school settings?

A: Outdoor time is an essential characteristic of childhood.  Children need daily opportunities to run, jump, climb, hide, make a mess, sing, shout, seek adventure and take risks. Outdoor play allows children to experience the wonder and joy that the natural world offers. Encouraging this connection helps children develop their physical skills, five senses, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, visual-spatial awareness, creativity, and confidence.

While children can learn in a variety of settings, outdoor time supports whole-child development and learning by offering hands-on, self-directed learning through observation, exploration, experimentation, and discovery. In an outdoor environment, children learn about science, weather, seasons, ecology, gardening, language, literacy, vocabulary, math, construction, engineering, and social skills.

Children cannot and should not be restrained to their indoor classrooms for the entire day. The restorative powers of fresh air, sunlight, exercise and sounds of nature are benefits from direct exposure to the outdoors and are essential for healthy child development.  Studies have shown that regular outdoor play boosts immunity and reduces obesity, irritability, stress, aggression, anti-social behavior, and symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder.

In addition, everyone who works with children clearly understands how quickly illness can spread through a classroom. And today, we have the added stress and risk of COVID-19 exposure. Whether the illness is caused by bacteria or a virus, children and indoor classrooms are the perfect hosts. Eliminating any illness from a classroom is challenging for several reasons:

  • The lack of resources and time to properly disinfect and sanitize the classroom each day

  • The failure of parents to keep ill children at home until they are no longer contagious

  • Children’s disregard to follow proper hygiene practices such as covering their mouth and nose with their elbow (or sleeve) when they cough or sneeze

  • Individuals’ indifference to washing their hands with soap and water throughout the day

So, when contemplating the question “How important is outdoor time for children returning to school?”, the answer is indisputable- Outdoor time is indispensable.  Providing children daily time outdoors and allowing them to connect with nature not only exposes them to a more sanitary environment, but also improves fitness and health, facilitates social development, inspires collaboration, fosters creativity and reveals vast amounts of basic knowledge about the natural world.

Terri Fernandez is the Executive Director of The Learning Center at St. John. She is a hands-on early-education professional with more than 40 years of diverse experience and expertise. Her concentrated efforts on organizational management, innovative classroom design, play-based program development, and the creation of nature-based outdoor environments have resulted in quality initiatives and programs for the children and families in our community.