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How to keep your children healthy — and prepare them for school changes

The start of the school year will look different for all students as classes begin online or in-person. Akron Children's Hospital pediatricians share ways to keep students physically and mentally healthy through these changes.
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Whether schools reopen remotely or in-person, all parents are facing a new set of challenges to keep their children mentally and physically healthy during daily classes amid a pandemic.

Dr. Mallory Zehe, a pediatric psychologist at Akron’s Children's Hospital, said it’s important for parents to prepare children for the changes — and the unknown —going into the school year.

“Interaction might look a little bit different, but there’s still going to be some similarities and consistencies with what they remember of school,” Zehe said.

Zehe said parents can talk to their children to make sure they understand their feelings of worry, fear or nervousness are normal in this unfamiliar situation whether returning in-person or online.

She said it’s important to make sure a child’s feelings aren’t being dismissed and that they have coping skills, such as someone to talk to or breathing exercises, to deal with emotions.

A parent also should do a daily emotional check-in with a child to discuss their feelings with school changes. For children who aren’t as verbally expressive, she said to watch their behavior for changes, such as becoming more withdrawn or emotional outbursts.

“No. 1 is validating the emotion, and then No. 2 is helping kids to remember coping skills,” Zehe said.

In-person learning will look different with limited class sizes, social distancing in classrooms and mandated masks for grades K-12.

Dr. Erin Donley, a pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital, said children should be prepared to wear a mask when coming and going from school buildings, on the bus and walking through the halls.

Some schools will allow times for mask breaks, but it varies from each school district.

Donley emphasized the importance of having children understand the importance of wearing a mask to protect themselves and others since COVID-19 can spread asymptomatically.

“I wear my mask to keep you safe,” Donley said. “You wear your mask to keep me safe, and that's just kindness.”

For those students who do go to a school for in-person instruction, Donley recommends children wear a different mask each day or have their mask washed when they get home from school each day, if possible.

Children should remove their shoes before entering the house and wash their hands when they first get home in order to prevent spreading germs from school at home. Donley said parents can also wipe down school supplies, phones or other devices that they use throughout the school day.

For remote learning, Zehe said parents should create a designated space for school instruction in their home that is set up with all the school supplies so their children can understand it’s a place for work. Parents should also develop a schedule to get their children on a set routine for school.

“Whether it’s a morning or afternoon block or breaking it up by hours but just implementing some sort of structure so kids know what’s expected of them,” Zehe said.

Whether in-person or online, some schools have also decided not to include extracurriculars, like gym and art, into the start of the year in order to focus on the core curriculum. Fall sports can return based on guidelines that Gov. Mike DeWine signed on Wednesday and that will be determined by each district.

Parents can make a list of extra activities or projects they want to do throughout the week to help enrich their learning, Zehe said. At the beginning of each week, the child can pick a few activities on the list they would like to do throughout the week.

Zehe said the list should be made up of specific activities and projects, such as an online museum tour, practicing a sport or doing a certain art project.

Donley recommends that children find other ways to do physical activity throughout the day, especially if sports are canceled or they are not attending school in person.

“It can be broken up over the course of the day, but we do recommend 60 minutes of physical activity a day,” Donley said.

Additional information about children’s health for back to school can be found in Akron’s Children Hospital return-to-school guide.



Ellen Wagner

About the Author: Ellen Wagner

Ellen Wagner reports on municipal services and budget cuts in Youngstown. She is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.
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