How to prepare your kids for school in a pandemic: Q&A on a safe return to class

With Israel gradually returning to lessons, amid limitations, Prof. Limor Aharonson-Daniel urges parents: Give children facts; if they know what’s going on, they’ll be less anxious

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Children wearing face masks in a field at Hasharon Park, in Hadera, on March 23, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)
Children wearing face masks in a field at Hasharon Park, in Hadera, on March 23, 2020. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Israel is to gradually reopen schools and kindergartens. If the government concludes in a final assessment later this week that coronavirus infection rates are continuing to drop, students in the younger grades will return on Sunday.

The Education Ministry on Tuesday released details of its plan for the reopening of some schools after a month and a half of closure, which government ministers green-lighted the previous day.

Children in first through third grades will return to school for five days a week, five hours a day. Kindergartens and preschools will be divided into groups of 15 to 17 that will each have classes half the week at school and half the week remotely. Teachers will ensure that special government rules, such as spacing of desks and wearing of face masks, are observed.

But how should parents, who have been with kids 24/7 for weeks, minimizing their exposure to coronavirus and enforcing their hygiene practices, prepare them for return to classes?

The Times of Israel held a quick-fire Q&A with public health expert Prof. Limor Aharonson-Daniel, head of the PREPARED Center for Emergency Response Research at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

Giving advice to parents, and a few tips for teachers, she said it will be a complicated time of alcohol gel and anxiety, but if children are provided with lots of information, they will rise to the challenge.

1. What is the key to a smooth and safe return to kindergarten and school?

The most important thing to give kids a sense of control. If people feel they are controlling what happens to them, they are less anxious and stressed. Knowledge is important here. Give facts. Children are wise enough to understand the facts of contamination, what it means to have contaminated surfaces, why it’s a worry, and in general how coronavirus risk works. If they cognitively understand the situation, and it’s not a matter of only saying “don’t do this or this,” they are less likely to become anxious.

Prof. Limor Aharonson-Daniel, head of the PREPARED Center for Emergency Response Research at Ben Gurion University of the Negev (courtesy)

2. Should we also brief them on how to react if they do expose themselves to risk?

Yes. Tell them what happens if they touch a contaminated surface. Tell them it’s not the end of the world: don’t panic, just go and wash your hands very well with soap and water. This is a very important thing to teach. We don’t want children to be terrified.

3. You hope that parents will give children accurate information, but what about other kids? Are you concerned about children passing false information about the coronavirus, and scaring each other?

The quantity of false messages we all get is enormous, and children are no different. But I think children, especially those from elementary school upwards, can actually be smarter than us in detecting false messages.

4. Kids want to get close to each other, but the virus has been fought by keeping distance. How should we tell children to act around their friends?

I would explain to them that this is a temporary situation until the disease goes away and they should try, as much as they can, not to be very physical. But on the other hand, they need to play, and part of reason we’re sending children back is a social reason. They need to interact with each other. So they should play, but make efforts to choose games that don’t include very close physical contact.

5. What should people instruct kids regarding hand-washing?

In this March 24, 2020 photo, children wear protective face masks amid concerns over the coronavirus outbreak in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Tell them to clean hands every few hours, and certainly before and after eating. But schools should be aware that having lots of children crowding around sinks for hand washing together is a potential problem. It’s good to have bottles of sanitizer around, not just for use but also to be visible and remind children that this is a different period than the norm.

6. Is there a concern that with all the emphasis on hand cleaning we’ll see a spate of kids developing obsessive hygiene practices and conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder?

I think there is, and we have to be alert. It’s adults too. All of us are washing hands lots at the moment. Some people will go back to normal after the crisis and others will need some type of intervention, though it’s too early for this now, because at the moment, the hand washing is necessary.

7. Israeli kids are normally expected to take food to kindergarten and school, and teachers often serve snacks too. What changes should be put in place here?

Teachers should not use central plates for serving cut food, and they should develop ways of serving personal portions instead. When parents prepare food, they should try package it in a way that it’s accessible to them, so they don’t need help from others to unwrap it or cut up the food.

8. In general, educational institutions are shifting away from disposables, for environmental reasons, but is there a play-off at the moment between the use of disposables and vigilance against the virus?

If teachers can’t confirm the standard of washing utensils, I would prefer the use of disposables for a while just while we see where all of this is going. But if it’s felt use of disposables isn’t the right thing, the focus should be on ensuring washing is very effective. It may be that emphasis needs to be on finding the most reliable soap or soaking dishes in disinfectant.

High school grade three students wearing face masks arrive at school after the term opening was delayed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, in Bozhou in China’s eastern Anhui province on April 7, 2020.(Photo by STR / AFP)

9. At first, most of the emphasis is on sending younger kids back to school, but high school students are expected to return soon. Is there a specific approach needed for talking to teenagers?

The advice is the same, and the approach of sharing information will be the same, but the chance they will adhere to guidelines you set is lower.

10. Do you have any suggestions to address this?

There could be a value to focusing on role models in classes. If I were a high school educator I would look for role models among the students in the classroom and ensure they are being responsible, in a belief that others will follow.

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