Masked strangers. Temperature checks. Unfamiliar kids playing 6 feet away.
Many child care centers and preschools that survived COVID-19 shutdowns are reopening their doors this fall. But the first day of class looks a little different this year, leaving some kids and guardians feeling anxious.
Minors account for about 8% of all coronavirus cases in the U.S., and most have mild symptoms and fully recover within one to two weeks – quicker than most adults. But a small percentage of children have been reported to have more severe illness, and researchers are still learning more about the role children play in asymptomatic spread of the disease.
To keep kids, families and staff safe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that child care programs implement an array of new safety measures amid the pandemic, such as reducing class sizes, intensifying cleaning protocols, taking children’s temperatures each morning, requiring kids and staff to wear face masks, staggering drop-off and pickup times, spreading nap mats out 6 feet apart, ending family-style mealtimes and more. Many states and counties have additional guidance.
"For so many of the parents I talk to, it’s a scary time. The uncertainty is stressful," said Dr. Erica Lee, a psychiatrist at Boston Children’s Hospital. "Kids are really resilient, and they follow their parents' and teachers' cues. The more calm and predictability we can create for them at home and at school, the better kids will do."
To help you prepare for your child's new adventure, USA TODAY spoke with pediatricians, child psychologists and preschool administrators to gather tips and tricks for what to do before school starts, on the first day and in the first few weeks.Before school starts: Set expectations and routines
The key to a smooth preschool transition is helping your child understand what to expect at school and getting them into a regular routine, experts say. Amid the pandemic, these basic practices become even more essential.
"Back-to-school happens every year, and it happens differently for every family and every child," said Dr. Elanna Yalow, chief academic officer at KinderCare Learning Centers, a Portland, Oregon-based company operating more than 1,600 early childhood education centers. "A lot of the fundamentals probably matter a little bit more now, but they're the same."
Weeks before school starts, establish a regular bedtime and meal schedule. If you can, find out what your child's school schedule will be and practice going through the motions of their day.
"Preschool is all about routine, and if you have a good routine at home in the morning and evening, then it’s very easy for children to adapt to the predictable routines happening in a preschool," said Caroline Maese, a regional manager at Learning Care Group, a Michigan-based company that operates more than 900 child care and early education centers.
Try to help your child grasp what their building and classroom will look like. Some schools are offering after-hours building tours, sharing photos or offering virtual tours.
"It used to be we would offer you the opportunity to come into the building to tour. Now we offer you the virtual tour," Maese said. "Directors have iPads, and they’re able to walk parents through the building and meet teachers."
If you receive a photo of your child's classroom, ask your child to draw a picture of it or tell a story about the first day, Yalow said. Make sure the image or narrative incorporates public health precautions, such as spaced-out desks and frequent hand-washing.
"It’s not only a great way to have your child express themselves, but it’s a great way for you to understand what your child may be thinking about," Yalow said.
Some schools provide photos of their teachers online, too, so it may be helpful to show your child images of their future teacher so that they understand what they look like beneath their mask, said Yesenia Marroquin, a clinical psychologist in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
You also can practice school drop-off and pickup, Marroquin said. On a Saturday morning, try going through the motions of your morning routine and pretend to drop your child off at school, getting as close to the building as possible, she said.
"It gives them a little bit of familiarity on their own terms without an audience of additional folks who are trying to drop off their kiddos," Marroquin said.
If you haven't already, it's important to help your child establish proper hygiene habits in advance.
"If kids have not been out and about much, wear your mask around them so they can get used to seeing people wearing one," said Dr. Angela Mattke, pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic. "Slowly let them touch and feel, pick out and decorate their mask. Then get their stuffed animals to wear the mask. Anytime you can do pretend-play, it can make it go much easier."
Other strategies for getting kids excited about wearing masks include talking to them about how superheroes also wear masks to stay safe or buying them a mask that matches something their parents or siblings wear, Lee suggested.
Because many public health concepts are abstract, try to find ways to make these ideas more concrete for your child, Mattke said. When it comes to social distancing, it may be helpful to draw lines with chalk on the ground and play a game. For hand-washing, practice singing "Happy Birthday" twice so that your child knows how long to wash.
If your child is not used to seeing new faces or having social interactions, it may be helpful to set up some virtual or socially distanced play dates in the weeks leading up to school, Lee said.
As you're navigating this entire process with your child and exposing them to new habits, it's important to speak in an excited tone, Mattke said.
"I would strongly recommend that parents talk about social distancing and masking in a positive manner. Preschoolers love to be helpful, and if we teach them that it’s their job to keep themselves healthy so that they can keep other people healthy, they’re going to be much more willing to do it," Mattke said.The first day: Establish a 'goodbye ritual'
On the first day of school, try to exude excitement about your child's new milestone, and plan a small celebration with them for after school to reward their bravery and give them something to look forward to, experts said.
Empowering your child to make choices also helps them feel more secure and in control, Lee said. That morning before school, allow your child to make a series of decisions by offering them a choice of two or three options: What do you want to have for breakfast? Which mask do you want to wear? Which lunch box do you want to bring?
Make sure to pack your child at least one extra face mask in a plastic bag, Mattke said.
"It's definitely going to get dirty. I've seen that with my own kids," she said.
Because many schools require parents and guardians to drop their children off at the entrance of the building – not in the classroom – amid the pandemic, it may be helpful to establish a fun or silly "goodbye ritual," Lee said. Try a handshake or dance. And plan to take your first-day-of-school photos at home or before arriving at the building.
Even if your child is accustomed to wearing a face mask, school may be the first time your child encounters another kid who struggles to wear their mask, Lee said. She suggested you role-play the scenario with your child and encourage them to talk to their teacher about it, if the situation arises.
At some point during the school day, your child may start to feel uneasy, so make sure to prepare your child with some strategies they can use if that starts to happen, Lee said. Make sure they know who in the classroom they will be able to go to for help. Teach your child to take deep belly breaths, or introduce them to a "feelings chart," which allows kids to point at emotive faces to help them identify what they're feeling, she said.
"I would still celebrate the moments. Still celebrate the first day of school because it is a beautiful milestone," Mattke said. "Have an ice cream party or something special to celebrate the end of the first day of school because it gives kids enthusiasm and something to look forward to."
Just don't go overboard, Marroquin said.
"It’s not giving them a new tablet because they made it through the first day of school," she said. "It’s something that’s small and sustainable over time."Staying in touch: Virtual tours, messaging apps, live feeds
Without the daily face-to-face interactions with teachers, many parents are wondering how they can check in with schools about how their child is doing. Preschool administrators say they encourage parents to stay in touch through a variety of means.
Several preschool systems – including KinderCare, Learning Care Group and The Goddard School – were already were offering app-based communication with parents that allow teachers to send messages, photos and videos to parents throughout the day. Parents can send teachers questions through the app and request updates on their child.
"It's particularly important in the time of COVID when parents don’t feel they have as much access," Yalow said. "Some families may see that as being a burden or pest – or they don’t want to be 'that parent' – but we know that for our children it’s not a burden, it is a gift. That communication is absolutely essential."
Learning Care Group is also rolling out live feed camera access so that parents and guardians can log on and watch their child at school. Maese said the group had already been in the process of implementing the "Watch Me Grow" program – to help connect with extended family members and deployed parents – and accelerated the program roll-out due to COVID-19.
"Parents really enjoy it. I think it gives them more things to talk about with their children because they know what they’ve been doing throughout the day," Maese said.
Try to stay connected to your child's learning by replicating some of the games or activities they're doing at school back at home, Yalow said.
"Find more creative and more concrete ways to really understand you child’s experience at the center. If they say they played something, ask them questions and see if you can play it at home," Yalow said.
As time goes on, remember to find joy in your child's new daily experiences.
"It’s very easy for families to focus on that first day or first week and then take for granted the experiences they’re having with their teachers and friends," Yalow said. "You may settle into a practical routine, but I would continue to celebrate the wonder of what the children are experiencing."
Since local coronavirus dynamics remain fluid, it's best to prepare your child for the possibility of reverting to remote learning. "If the school has to go virtual again, prepare them for that potential change," Marroquin said.Parents, remember to check in with your own emotions, too
The first day or school isn't just hard for kids – it's also hard for parents, so be aware of your own feelings and talk out your stresses and strategies with friends and other parents, experts say.
"There’s always a certain anxiety about children going back to school or starting school for the first time, and now that feeling may be magnified," Yalow said.
Lee recommends implementing whatever self-care measures work best for you to relax and recharge.
"Because they’re doing so much, parents really need to take care of themselves so that they can keep showing up for their children," she said.
Focus on the positives, and don't feel guilty if you're excited to send your child off to school, Yalow said.
"Preschool experiences are amazing for young children. The excitement and enthusiasm should be real," Yalow said. "There’s nothing wrong with knowing that your child is going to have great experiences during the day."