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How to Prepare Kids For a Return to School Amid Pandemic Uncertainty

Keeping kids virus-free requires a balancing act with their mental health

Vaccinated adults and teenagers are enjoying many of the activities they missed during the pandemic. But for children under 12, a vaccine is not yet available. This may have put a damper on family summer plans and can be frustrating for children, who are still required to wear a mask. 

In California, full-time, in-person school starts in just a few weeks, and because masks are required for those who are unvaccinated, younger children will have to wear masks at school. At this point, we do not know exactly when a vaccine will be approved for children. Whether older, vaccinated students will be required to wear masks at school is also unclear, and will depend on the rules of each district.

So even as our communities have opened, it can be challenging for families to navigate the ongoing effects of COVID-19. Here, Malaika Stoll, M.D., senior medical director for Blue Shield of California and mother of three, shares her thoughts on preparing ourselves for changes, while enjoying the remaining days of summer. 

Focus on facts and have patience.

“While we still have a lot to learn about COVID-19, there is a large and growing body of knowledge,” says Dr. Stoll.  We know that the vaccine is highly effective and very safe against COVID-19, and we know that masks are protective, especially with concern surrounding the Delta variant. We know that being indoors, and in crowds, increases the risk of contracting COVID-19. We also know that young people generally have no symptoms, or mild symptoms if they contract it. “Helping children understand the necessary precautions, without making them anxious, is the goal,” says Dr. Stoll.  

malaika stoll headshot 2sq
Dr. Malaika Stoll

Parents can explain to children that the reason that older people were vaccinated first, is that the virus is more dangerous to them. That the vaccine is safe and effective in adults is reassuring, and most likely the vaccine will be available to children soon. We have all learned to be a bit more patient during this pandemic.

Validate challenges, while staying positive.  

Things are better now than they were six months ago, and they will continue to improve as more people get vaccinated. However, children and teens have faced unique challenges because of COVID-19, and these challenges continue. Some youth may be concerned about social interactions, as they prepare to return to in-person school. 

“It is important to let children know that these concerns are understandable,” says Dr. Stoll. “At the same time, the fact that schools are opening is positive—for students and for families. Help your children find things to be excited about, like seeing a favorite teacher or friend, returning to sports or other activities, or getting new school supplies.” And speaking of school supplies, don’t forget to include masks. 

Find balance and accept change. 

For some, resuming pre-pandemic activities requires a gradual approach.  Be open to talking to your younger family members to help find balance. Quiet time after school, and in between playdates and activities, may help children ease back into a normal routine. 

Sometimes, parents will want to encourage certain activities, to help with gradual exposure and re-entry.  “Explain to your children that it is normal to feel nervous when doing things that they haven’t done in a while,” says Dr Stoll. Also, parents need to realize that their children are different than they were a year ago. They may have developed new interests, made new friends and formed new habits. Just because our environment is returning to a pre-pandemic state, does not mean that we will interact with the environment in the same way. 

Take a break.

There is a reason it is called summer break. Let’s take these next few weeks to enjoy family, friends and favorite activities, and to celebrate the progress we’ve made towards living in a safer environment. While we can do some preparation for the first day of school, let’s also remember to make the most out of the last few weeks of summer. 

Blue Shield of California’s BlueSky and the Child Mind Institute offer parents these supportive guides to address youth mental health needs.

Blue Shield of California’s BlueSky Initiative enhances access, awareness, and advocacy of youth mental health supports in collaboration with the California Department of Education and leading nonprofit organizations. BlueSky supports California youth mental health by providing access to clinicians in middle and high schools, training educators on the signs of mental health issues, and empowering students with in-person and online mental health support resources.