June 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Back to School—Part 1

As students return to in-person classes, parents as well as many students have expressed concerns about their safety. We now know that, unfortunately, children are not immune from the coronavirus. The Delta variant in particular has produced a well-documented surge in pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations. Governor Murphy has mandated masks in all New Jersey public and private schools. Parents and students are filled with uncertainty, and have many questions about their safety. In addition to health-related concerns, there are the fears that after a year of remote learning, some children may have fallen behind academically, or are less comfortable socializing with peers.

The medical situation is still fluid, research is ongoing and every medical association, research facility and public health entity is working hard to get a definitive handle on this ongoing crisis. Hospitals are working hard, and cases are being closely monitored to decipher a trend in either direction. The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to review the rapidly evolving coronavirus situation in schools. However, it is strongly recommending universal masking, and a speedy authorization of vaccines for kids under 12.

Some children may be nervous, especially those old enough to read newspapers or watch the news. Kids need to be prepped. There are a number of things parents can do to ensure a smooth re-entry for their child. One of the best ways to ease back to in-person schooling is to give children a good sense of what they can expect, and for parents to make clear that they believe a safe return is possible. Parents need to project calm reassurance. First, make sure all family members, including kids ages 12 and up, as well as their older siblings, parents and grandparents, are fully vaccinated. As soon as the vaccine is available to kids under 12, it’s important that they get it, too. Unvaccinated children need to be reassured if they are anxious about returning to school that it is safe to do so as long as all precautions are taken. Students need to be told that the vaccines are safe and effective, and that using them with masks is the best way to keep everyone safe. Of course, handwashing, sanitizing, not sharing food and social distancing indoors can give children a sense of their own power during this potentially scary time. Whenever we ask a child to do something, they need to understand why. Talk to them about masks and how to wear them properly.

Be okay with academic imperfection. Due to the extensive disruptions in learning over the past year, some students may be returning to school with some deficits in their educational progress, and they will need time to catch up. Teachers and parents need to be positive. Children can be told that we may need to work together on things they may have missed. Do not have an expectation that kids will always be at grade level at this point. It’s realistic for parents to be concerned that a child missed too much during remote schooling. Have faith in the system. Teachers are fully cognizant of these challenges and are prepared. As is true in any normal year, if a child is having difficulties it might indicate the need for additional support for further evaluation or behavioral remedies.

Children also suffered during the past year from the lack of social activities. Many were lonely, and didn’t have any outside activities like sports, birthday parties or Shabbos groups. Encourage socially distant and masked outdoor activities and visits with friends. This can facilitate the process of reintroducing kids to group activities and may take some of the tension out of going back to the classroom.

Children’s schedules have become haphazard during the pandemic year, with eating and sleeping at odd hours. Returning to a routine is crucial (for adults as well). Parents need to control regular sleep and wake times. Enforce a “no-screen time” at least an hour before bed, and try to keep meal times consistent.

During the past year many children (as well as adults) indulged or even binged on unhealthy snack foods. Parents should try to reinstate some dietary limitations. It’s always a good idea to emphasize fruits and vegetables over highly processed foods or sweetened beverages. Being homebound for a year, many children (and adults) have gained weight because of less exercise and stress overeating. We don’t want to make children self-conscious or place additional pressure on them. But, parents can model those healthy habits—eating set meals rather than constant snacking, and increasing physical activity.

When children are feeling vulnerable, they need more physical affection, security and acknowledgment of their feelings. Parents should provide that support. Ask about their day, listen to their concerns, and acknowledge that these are difficult times. Don’t dismiss them.

When children return to school they will be together with children whose families may have different approaches to COVID safety. Some children may not want to wear masks, others may be from families that strictly enforced physical distancing and some may have families that took fewer precautions. Be prepared for some challenges.

Some children may be bullied or mocked for their precautions. Schools should do everything they can to deal with bullying due to weight gain, masking, academic issues or anything else, and address it promptly.

We are still in crisis mode. Parents and schools are partners in the process of making sure our children ease back into school safely and productively. Pretending that everything is fine—and that no extraordinary measures are needed—is a recipe for disaster.


Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish day school educator, administrator and consultant.

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