Back to School Guidance

Fall 2021

Sections in this Guide

by Kristelle Lavallee Collins and Jill R. Kavanaugh, with social-emotional learning content written by Nick Woolf.

An important note

The Digital Wellness Lab is committed to bringing you the latest research-based information and guidance to help you and your family best navigate our changing digital landscape. As of the date of publication (August 3rd, 2021), there are still many unknowns when it comes to how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect schools. As a result, we highly recommend that parents, caregivers and teachers continue to check and make informed decisions based on the science-based guidance put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Welcome

We're here to help your child and your family have a successful school year!

The start of a new school year often brings mixed emotions, and this year is no exception. Many teachers, caregivers, and students are now familiar with the important roles technology plays in children’s experience with school. However, none of us can be certain as to what those exact roles will be. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it is important for all of us to remain flexible in our expectations, while also providing children and teens with reassurance and a sense of stability when it comes to their learning.

Use this Guide to help better understand and prepare for the opportunities and challenges that you and your child may face this school year. As schools draw upon lessons learned from the past year and prepare for going back to a physical classroom, learning remotely online, or a hybrid of both, this guide contains expert advice and practical steps you can take to help your child mentally prepare for school. Here you will find answers to the biggest questions facing many parents, as well as the latest research-based strategies and resources to help you balance their time and adapt to different ways of learning. From helping maintain children’s attention to lessons, to making sure they are able to socialize with friends, this guide can help you best prepare your child for a successful school year! 

Learning

Here you'll find answers to parents' commonly asked questions about the 2021-2022 school year.

Learning loss typically refers to any loss of knowledge or skills that students experience after a break from their formal education. Before the current pandemic, it was generally spoken about as an issue resulting from summer break; however, the term has recently resurfaced in reference to the changing learning situations nearly all children experienced as a result of the pandemic. Although a recent nationally representative pulse survey from the Digital Wellness Lab found that most parents felt remote learning was a positive experience for their children (many were primarily concerned about their child’s social-emotional or SEL skills suffering), other surveys and studies highlight concerns related to widening achievement gaps between students from poor and wealthy families.

Talk to your children about any concerns that they have about their learning prior to the start of school. If they are worried about falling or being behind after last year, reassure them that everyone is living through this pandemic and that their fellow classmates are likely experiencing the same fears. You can also contact your child’s teacher before school starts to let them know about your child’s concerns. Ask teachers and school librarians if there are any books, activities, or programs they recommend to help supplement your child’s learning, or build up their confidence before they start school. Remind your child that just because their education was different than what they expected, they still learned last year, both formally and informally, and that you are there for them to help support their efforts this school year.

As mentioned previously, many parents are concerned with their child’s social-emotional skills suffering due to school closures and social-distancing precautions. As a result, social-emotional learning (also known as SEL) is top of mind for many teachers and caregivers. Fortunately, there are steps parents can take to help ensure that their child’s SEL stays on track this school year.

For younger children (grades K-5), caregivers can work with teachers to extend learning social-emotional instruction into the home. Research shows that when the social emotional lessons learned at school are maintained and reinforced at home, the benefits of those skills are greater for students. Consider calling, emailing, or visiting your child’s teacher and asking them about how they define SEL, what specific SEL skills they are focusing on this year, and how you can support your child’s social-emotional development at home.

For older children (grades 6-12), it’s important to help them strike a balance between focusing on their academic work and readjusting to school (both socially and emotionally). Create space for them to have conversations with family members and friends about how they have been impacted by the uncertainty of the past year, as well as about how they are feeling in the first few weeks back in their classrooms. Simply checking in with your tween or teen, and actively listening to how they are feeling, can go a long way towards improving their overall well-being and psychological safety.

Many schools are preparing to have students on campus, and since last year, schools have made changes to help better support student health and safety, including the prevention of spreading coronavirus. While many schools will be following the updated guidelines put forth by the CDC, knowing the specific strategies that your child’s school will take to ensure safety before the first bell rings can help your child or teen feel better about beginning the school year.

Whether your child will be entering pre-K or freshman year of high school, most schools are keeping their students and families informed by posting updates on school websites, social media groups, or through newsletters. Be sure to read all updates that the school provides, and talk to your child about new policies and rules. Some of the most important changes to prepare for are handwashing, cleaning and sanitizing school materials, and social distancing. Additionally, your child’s school may have updated policies on sick days and quarantining procedures should someone your child is in contact with contract COVID-19 (or if they contract COVID-19 themselves).

If your child or teen is experiencing anxiety about being exposed to COVID-19 at school, try and tour your child’s school with your child or teen. If mask mandates are in place, be sure to wear masks throughout the visit. Show your child the handwashing and sanitizer stations, classrooms, lockers/cubbies, eating areas, and the outdoor space. If an in-person tour isn’t possible, ask if an online video tour is available, or if a school administrator might be able to talk to you and your child about the campus and overall school policies.

Some schools are tech-free, and if your child or teen is returning to the physical building, these rules still may be in place. Other schools integrate technology into daily lessons, with some even encouraging or expecting students to use their own phones or school tablets to complete work and collaborate with classmates. Make sure your children know what is expected of them—everything from what they can and can’t bring to school to the rules for using school-owned devices, both at school and at home.

If your child will be attending classes in person full- or part-time, be sure to ask what the education plan will be if the school needs to close due to COVID-19 concerns, or if your child needs to quarantine due to exposure to the virus. Ask what devices and software are needed and if there will be opportunities to test these out before a potential closure.

If your child’s school chooses a hybrid curriculum, with some in-person instruction and some remote learning, meet with your child’s teacher or guidance counselor (especially if your child is starting a new school where they do not yet know them). Children learn differently and it can be helpful to have in-person instruction, where the teacher can read the student’s level of understanding and the student can reach out for help.

Research from the past year+ found that many homes lack access to the internet and/or devices needed for students to attend online classes and complete assigned coursework. If your family does not have access to a needed device or broadband internet at home, be sure that your child’s school and teacher know that before school starts. Your child may be able to receive a school-issued device, portable WiFi hotspot, or modified lessons, so that they can complete their required coursework and learn all assigned material with the tools available to them.

For students attending school remotely, make sure that you and your child understand, try out, and master the processes for signing into online classes, completing assignments, and getting feedback. Schools will provide this information along with instructions on how to download, set up, and use any needed software or apps. If anything is unclear to you or your child, do not hesitate to contact your school’s administration or tech support for help.

Once you and your child know and have what is needed, set up the required platforms with your child and write down their login information. This will help if a password is forgotten, and will also allow you to better support your child or teen throughout the school year. Many platforms have parent portals or other features that parents can use to remain aware of and support their child’s progress. Ask your child’s teachers or school administrator about what other free resources they may have available.

Help your children get comfortable with using the features of the devices and platforms. You can do this by watching online tutorials with your child, testing features such as muting audio, and adjusting camera and volume settings ahead of time. If possible, create a quiet workspace for your child where they can attend their online classes. If your home is busy (or just noisy), make sure that your child has headphones with a microphone, so that they can hear the lecture or lesson clearly.

Finally, once your child has their class schedule, create and use a calendar so that lectures or class sessions aren’t accidentally missed. You can also use a physical calendar, poster board, whiteboard, app, or notebook.

Overall, it is important to set up household expectations around online learning. Some questions to ask your child’s teachers include:

  • How long will they be expected to be online during their school day?
  • Do they need to attend every online session live, or will recordings be available?
  • Are there times during the day that a student can access their teacher (phone, email or video chat) outside of online class sessions to ask questions or get additional help?
  • Can they substitute independent work (such as reading or writing) for some online sessions?

Your child’s teachers will most likely tell you how to best keep in touch with them, whether by phone, email, a class web portal, or scheduling a meeting with them in person. Also let them know how they can contact you when they have questions or concerns about your child.

As the school year progresses, ask your child’s teachers about how your child is doing, both academically and socially. When it comes to technology, make sure that your child is using devices, apps, and programs the way their teachers intend them to—as tools to support their learning. Knowing the goals that teachers set for the school year, and their plans for guiding students to reach those goals, can help you better support your children’s schoolwork and tech use at home.

Many kids (and adults) of all ages get distracted by “technoference” or “media multitasking” which is when they watch videos, chat on social media, or surf the web all while doing their homework.  Although they may not realize it, using media that has nothing to do with their homework (such as watching online music videos) actually causes them to take longer to finish, make more mistakes, and remember less of the material.

When your child is attending online classes or doing their homework, help them stay focused by setting up a quiet “schoolwork area” where they can focus on their schoolwork without seeing or hearing background distractions.

It’s important to note that schoolwork areas can be in a common room, such as the kitchen, where you can monitor your child’s work and their media use. This will allow you to help them stay on task, and be available to answer any questions.

Many parents have experienced big changes when it comes to their own employment situations. Whether working from home (remotely), at a separate office or jobsite, or a hybrid of the two, each situation can present challenges should your child’s school situation change, but there are ways that you can prepare yourself and your family:

  • Get your family on the same page. Make a family plan for work and school, and for various changing situations. This includes staying connected and safe if you need to work outside of the home while your older child attends school at home. Make sure that every member of your household can easily figure out when video or streaming services will be used, should your family find yourselves working and learning from home.
  • Communicate with employers and teachers.Talk to your boss about your work schedule, and see what flexibility is offered and what resources are available. Childcare benefits may be available to you, and your employer may be able to connect you with these resources. Have a conversation with your child’s teachers about your work situation, and any concerns you may have. Ask what tools the school is offering that can help you stay connected with what is happening, even while maintaining your job.
  • Determine tech needs. Make sure that your house has the devices and online bandwidth needed for you and your child to work and learn remotely, and that your child can easily operate the devices on their own should you be busy with work. Test your internet connection to see if it can handle multiple video calls or streaming services at the same time. If not, let your employer and your child’s school know—they may be able to provide you with the tech tools needed and work around your schedule so that internet connectivity remains reliable and stable.
  • Activate your village. Parenting is an important and difficult job and is not done in isolation. All of us need each other and there are many ways that we can be there to support one another. Take time to think about what you need, what the people in your life need, and how you all may be able to collectively help each other. If possible, rotate childcare, pick-up/drop off or remote child monitoring with families you know and trust. Don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it, remembering that all of us will make it through this pandemic, this work year and this school year, but it will take all of us working together to make this experience successful.

Health

Here you'll find answers for how to best support your child's health and wellbeing this school year.

Caregivers and students are likely more concerned about their physical health when it comes to school, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Checking school health and nursing policies, and websites such as the CDC can help inform you and your child of precautionary measures you can take (including getting vaccinated), and help alleviate fears. Here are a few additional steps you can take to help your child stay physically healthy this school year:

Eat nutritious food and balanced meals. Children tend to gain weight during their summer break from school, especially children from lower-income households. Similarly, the time away from school during the pandemic can also contribute to weight gain. Try to provide your child with healthy meals, snacks, and milk or water.

Be physically active. Ensure that your child is able to be physically active every day. Ask about the school’s plan for physical activity, including recess and formal physical education (P.E.), and let your child know how they will be participating. If school closes, or is hybrid and there isn’t outdoor space for your child to play safely, consider indoor activities such as dancing to their favorite music, or finding online videos to practice anything from yoga to full cardio routines. While many children may default to using screen media as their leisure activity, try to mix in fun, energetic activities that don’t involve screens.

Get enough sleep. Getting enough sleep is an important factor in children’s success at school. The National Sleep Foundation suggests the following:

  • Preschoolers (aged 3-5):10-13 hours of sleep per night
  • School age children (aged 6-13):9-11 hours of sleep per night
  • Teenagers (aged 14-17):8-10 hours of sleep per night

Even if your child is getting enough hours of sleep, it is important to determine whether they are getting quality sleep. Young brains need healthy sleep routines in order to develop, grow, and learn, and screen media can contribute to sleep problems in children and teens. When kids have a TV, smartphone or tablet in their bedrooms, they are more likely to fall asleep later, to sleep for shorter amounts of time, and to wake up during the night. These types of poor sleep patterns can contribute to problems with learning and school performance. Setting up healthy sleep habits before the school year begins, can help kids transition more easily into the school year and set them up for success. To help your child get the best sleep possible, have them:

  • Stop using all screens at least one hour before bedtime
  • Use a regular alarm clock instead of their phone or other internet connected device
  • Charge their phone/laptop/tablet outside of their bedroom overnight

Around the world, school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic affected an estimated 87% of students physically, socially, and psychologically, and research into the severity of these effects are ongoing. What we do know is that when schools close, children and teens do not have access to their usual support systems of friends, teachers, coaches, and school counsellors. Given the unique situation of COVID-19, and the disruption to their structure and routines, it is common for children and teens to feel worried, helpless, sad, and scared.

Whether your child has a history of mental health issues or not, it is important to be aware of how the pandemic can negatively affect how they think, feel, and behave. Recent research from Wuhan China, where the virus hit first, found that students returning to school experienced mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, partially due to the effects of feeling uncertain about the year with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although less common, parents should be mindful that children and teens living through the pandemic are at a higher risk of experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), however, there are several things you can do to help:

  • Be aware of your own feelings and how you show them. Children are very sensitive to our emotions and those feelings are contagious. Let them know that you and they are doing everything possible to stay safe. 
  • Be truthful about what we know and what we don’t know. Help your child learn critical thinking so they can determine the truth and those who tell it.
  • If you notice that your child is experiencing mild feelings of fear, worry, or sadness, be sure to listen and comfort them, whether they are toddlers or teenagers. Giving voice to concerns means sharing them, so your child doesn’t feel that they are holding their worries alone. Research during the pandemic found that students who had discussions with their parents about COVID-19 experienced less depression, anxiety, and stress.
  • If you notice that your child or teen feels lonely or isolated as a result of the pandemic, try spending more time with them. Don’t be discouraged if your children, as they get older, withdraw or push you away. Teens in particular may struggle with “social distancing,” as getting away from family and spending time with friends is an important and healthy part of adolescent development. Help them connect virtually with friends and “cool” family (as in “not parent”) in order to provide them with emotional support and validation of their feelings. Reassure them that social distancing will not last forever.
  • If you notice that your child or teen is doing poorly in school, having trouble sleeping, spending less time with their friends and family (virtually or in-person), or engaging less with favorite activities, talk to their primary care physician or school guidance counselor about getting a referral to a mental health professional. During the pandemic, clinicians are offering therapy via virtual visits (telehealth) in which they can determine what is going on and help your child with their feelings.
  • If you think that your child or teen is being cyberbullied, do not take away access to their devices. Not knowing what is going on will make them feel more vulnerable. Instead, review the messages with them in a supportive, empathetic way. Have an open, honest and non-judgmental conversation with them about the bullying. If they know the bully, contact your child’s school for guidance and additional resources. If they do not know who is bullying them online, it is best to turn the information over to the police. Most importantly, do everything possible to reassure your child that they are safe, and reach out to a mental health professional to help them process the experience.
  • If your child or teen starts experimenting with drugs or alcohol, disappears into the internet, is talking about or showing signs of self-harm or suicide, contact a professional immediately.

Experts agree that many of us are using more media and technology during the pandemic, whether we need it for a specific task or as a means to distract or entertain ourselves. While most of us can balance using interactive media with other activities, some children and teens who distract or soothe themselves by gaming, using social media, or watching videos online may be at a greater risk for developing PIMU during the pandemic. To help your child or teen learn how to regulate their media use, act as a media role model by being aware of your own online behaviors, and model how you would like your kids to use interactive media. If PIMU is impairing them physically (sleep deprivation), academically (worsening school performance), mentally (anxiety, depression) or psychosocially (isolating themselves and reacting angrily to being interrupted), seek professional help from your child’s doctor, therapist or the Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders (CIMAID) at Boston Children’s Hospital. 

Creating and maintaining routines during the pandemic has been a challenge for many families. Summer schedules often have more relaxed rules around media use, bedtimes, and activities. The start of a new school year is a great time for resetting house rhythms and expectations. Beginning a week or so before school starts, help your kids wake up at an hour that gives them time to eat breakfast, brush teeth and arrive at school on time, whether traveling to a physical school or to their remote learning space at home. This means that they’ll also need to start going to bed on time to get enough sleep, stopping screen use an hour before that, making sure required summer reading is done, and getting some physical exercise during the day.

 

 

 

 

 

COVID-19 has created a “perfect storm” for increased family violence: more time alone together at home, money issues, a lack of support systems, and increased substance use can all contribute to violence, abuse, and neglect. Children most at risk include those in low-income households or foster care, with chronic disorders, existing mental health issues or traumatic pasts. If you, a relative, a neighbor, a friend or a child you know may need help and support, use and/or share the following resources: Even if your family does not experience any violence firsthand, the unique challenges of the pandemic may leave you feeling more angry and frustrated than usual. If you find yourself yelling at your child in a moment of frustration, it is important to be honest with them about why you got mad, and to apologize and reassure them of your love. It is okay to acknowledge your limitations and frustrations. We all make mistakes and we will never be perfect at parenting. But we can always work to perfect it. Remember to practice self-care during these stressful times in order to prevent parent burnout.

Resources

Here you'll find additional information to support you and your family throughout the school year.

References

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