Expert tips on returning to school amidst the Delta Variant

By Chelsea Johnson, MD, FAAP
Medically reviewed
September 8, 2021

Millions of kids are returning to the classroom for in-person learning. Although there are still growing concerns about the COVID-19 delta variant from parents and teachers. The delta variant is 200% more transmissible and 1000% higher in viral load. This means more kids could potentially contract the virus, will test positive quicker after exposure and will have more of an opportunity to affect others. 

K Health’s Associate Lead of Pediatrics, Dr. Chelsea Johnson, weighs in with tips for parents to help prepare themselves and their students for a safe return.

Address nervous feelings

Having so much time spent at home, away from group outings, socializing and spending time in the classroom during the past year of COVID may uncover more than expected feelings of separation anxiety or never-before-seen anxiety. This is typical during socio-emotional development, especially infants and toddlers, but may be seen more acutely this year in school-age children. Here’s what you should do:

  • Validate the feelings and give words to their emotions if they struggle to voice what feels wrong. “It is common to feel anxious/afraid/nervous about starting school this year. I got butterflies in my tummy when I started my first day at my job too” 
  • Set a positive tone…”Being apart is tricky and I am going to miss you. I can’t wait to pick you up after school so you can share with me all the exciting things that happened.”
  • Establish a cherished goodbye ritual…”See ya later, alligator! or blow them a kiss that they ‘catch’.  If consistently used, this ritual signals to your child that you are separating, but they are safe and loved.  Confidently and positively perform drop off without hesitation, expressing worry, or last-minute changes to the drop off plan due to escalating anxious behaviors. Your child should be able to see you walk away smiling, blowing kisses, or a special shared wink.

Encourage school readiness skills

After a year of irregular schooling, parents may have reservations about their child’s readiness for this year.  Remember, learning never stopped, even when routine learning time was disrupted. Children are learning every minute of awake time no matter where they are or who they are with. Life skills progress even with disruptions: negotiation, collaboration, creative problem solving; perspective-taking, flexible thinking, and empathy. There were also missed opportunities for social development during the pandemic.  Remember that children have still been socializing this year! They socialize each day with the other people in their homes. There is give and take, back and forth, accommodating each other, reading cues, and playing together. Remind yourself that there has not been a complete absence of learning social skills, it has just looked different this past year. 

Create routines and schedules

Whether they know it, or will say it, or understand it, children need structured routines and predictable rituals for emotional well-being and to strengthen executive skills – that ability for self-regulation and the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.

  • Establish clear routines to eliminate daily decision-making and increase efficiency. Giving your child the opportunity to complete tasks without parental prompts provides accomplishment and accountability. Use picture visuals for younger kids who can’t read or a whiteboard with magnets to check off completed tasks, or for the older child with a smartphone, an app for routines and to-dos, can be helpful.
  • Talk positively about the new routines. Kids pick up on the attitudes of their parents. It’s important to be a role model of positivity even in times of uncertainty
  • Practice your new routine. Begin your new back-to-school schedule three to five days before the first day. Wake up early enough to allow time for everything that needs to get done such as breakfast, packing lunches, gathering belongings, catching the bus or carpool, etc. For preschool and older children, let them know that a transition is coming so it’s not a big surprise on the first morning. 
  • Maintain a bedtime and sleep schedule. Parents typically find this the hardest to stick to, but it’s healthy to maintain this normalcy to wind down and cue the brain and body it’s time for sleep. Changes to sleep schedules have the potential to affect our emotions and behavior. If possible, spend 3 to 5 days prior to your child’s first day on the new schedule. Set your alarms with enough time to wake your child up and begin your new routine. Get up and get ready just like you will when you return to school.
  • Don’t neglect your morning routine. Remember the flight attendant’s motto: always put your oxygen mask on first! Take care of your tasks by planning ahead and allowing for that additional time.
  • Homework time is crucial. Kids can benefit from their parents’ involvement during homework time. Parents should set aside time for a structured “homework session” each evening.

Teachers matter maybe even more than you think

  • Staying informed and connected may reduce your feelings of anxiety and provide a way for you to support your child’s learning at school.
  • Be proactive about communication. Establish positive communication with your child’s teachers upfront. Find out their preferred method of communication and the best times to reach them.
  • Work collaboratively with teachers. If you have questions or concerns throughout the year, address them in a non-confrontational manner, and be open-minded to partner towards a solution. 
  • Be supportive of your child’s teachers. Remember that none of us have been through this pandemic before and teachers are working to provide students with the best possible learning opportunities under the circumstances. Speak positively about them in front of your children and remember to express your gratitude to teachers directly.
  • Good questions to ask: How is my child doing? Do you have any concerns about his social or academic skills? Do you think he needs my help with anything?

Take COVID-19 seriously!

Students benefit from in-person learning and safely returning to in-person instruction in fall 2021 is a priority.

  • Talk to your school about health and safety protocols.
  • Make a plan for eligible children to get vaccinated. Read more about Covid-19 in children and visit vaccines.gov 
  • If your child isn’t eligible yet for a vaccine, talk with them about strategies to keep them safe at school
  • Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals in K-12 schools. Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is very important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained. Tips for wearing masks correctly.
  • Know you have the right to ask teachers if they’re vaccinated.It is not a HIPAA violation to ask. Although,they do not have to answer you.Schools may be more comfortable with sharing the percentage of teachers, employees, staff that are vaccinated.
  • Make a plan for safe transportation to and from school
  • Public transportation, school busing, carpooling, walking or biking, whatever mode of transportation you’re using in the fall, talk to your child about health and safety protocols to use to and from school. For example, per the CDC, wearing masks on school buses is mandatory and the CDC recommends all students, educators, staff, and visitors wear masks indoors in K-12 schools. 
  • Strongly encourage Eat farther apart during lunch and talk, laugh and socialize after masks are put back on
  • Wash or sanitize hands frequently.
  • Wear helmets and seatbelts! Always wear helmets when riding on bicycles, skateboards, roller skates and seatbelts in any moving motorized vehicle.

Connect to support

Child care is crucial for so many families—helping parents get back to work. The Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan provides the largest Child Tax Credit ever and historic relief to the most working families ever.  As of this month, most families are automatically receiving monthly payments of $250 or $300 per child.If you didn’t make enough to be required to file taxes in 2020 or 2019, it is not too late to get Child Tax Credit payments—just visit childtaxcredit.gov to sign up. These payments do not count as income for any family. So, signing up won’t affect your eligibility for other federal benefits like SNAP and WIC.

Returning to school can be a super scary thought, but with these tips you should be a lot more prepared and a little less nervous. Remember to always speak with a doctor if you think you’re child is experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.