PENNSYLVANIA (WHTM) — Many students spent the last school year learning from home, but this year, “back to school” doesn’t quite mean “back to normal.” This year will necessitate adjustments as students head back into their classrooms for in-person instruction amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In-person instruction offers opportunities for face-to-face interactions and relationship-building, the development of social skills, and real-time error correction, all in a more regimented setting than distance learning, Lincoln Intermediate Unit Assistant Executive Director Kendra Trail explained.
On the other hand, virtual learning can have more flexible timing. Students don’t have to get up in the morning to catch a bus at a certain time, and especially if their online classes are asynchronous, they can work at more of their own pace, Aaron Clarke, online learning account manager for the Capital Area Online Learning Association (CAOLA), said.
Getting back into that school-day schedule will be one major adjustment for students heading back to the classroom. Caregivers can help students prepare for this change before they get back into the school building.
“Wrapping up the summer, I think it’s going to be really important to start having conversations about structure, start implementing a schedule at home,” Larissa Valonis, governing board member and Northeast region representative for the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association, said.
This could mean eating meals at home when students may be eating at school or setting an alarm in the morning rather than getting up at noon, “which I know a lot of us might be struggling with still,” Valonis joked.
Much to her high-school-aged childrens’ chagrin, Jennifer Kirk, chair of the board for the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association, said she has implemented a bedtime in her house to help her kids get back on schedule — something she and Valonis suggest other parents could try, as well.
As schools determine masking requirements and the CDC continues to update its masking guidelines, students may be wearing face masks during the school day. Valonis suggested that families practice proper masking and help students get used to wearing face coverings again before the school year starts.
Trail also said that parents of younger students can reiterate health and safety practices like frequent and thorough hand washing and proper sneeze etiquette.
“We want to give [students] practice, so practicing everything we anticipate they will be experiencing that first day of school,” Valonis said.
Valonis, who also works as an elementary school counselor in the Forest City Regional School District, even suggested driving young students to their school buildings before the start of the school year so that the trip isn’t completely new on the first day of class.
“Older students may want to connect with friends to compare schedules or plan times to walk to class together during the school day,” Kirk said.
Kirk also encouraged students of all ages and their families to attend orientations and other school offerings prior to returning to class, and she said this could be especially helpful for students entering new buildings or young students who aren’t used to being in a school setting.
“It’s about, again, establishing norms for the start of the school year,” Kirk said. While these norms can be established through physical practice, open communication about schools’ expectations and students’ emotions can also help prepare children for a smooth transition back to school.
“Keeping up with school communications and policies and discussing those with students can help make the start of the year less jarring,” Kirk said.
“There will be…changes, but to know as much as you can upfront by just reviewing the information that is sent out or posted on your school’s website and talking about those with your children in advance, I think is really important,” Valonis said.
For example, schools might have specific rules about masking on transportation versus in school buildings, or they might be implementing temperature checks, and caregivers could discuss those procedures with their students prior to day one.
Kirk urges caregivers and students who have questions or concerns about the upcoming year to contact their school councilors, who can connect them with helpful resources and information.
Caregivers can also help students transition back to the classroom by maintaining open communication with them, offering opportunities for dialogue, and checking in on their emotional wellbeing.
“Some of our children might not say that they’re nervous, they might not say that they’re worried, they might not say that they have questions, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t worried, that they don’t have questions, that they’re not stressed and have anxieties. So open up the door to that conversation, and just don’t stop having those conversations,” Valonis said.
And, Valonis said, when students do share their feelings, it is often important for caregivers to validate their emotions.
Caregivers may also be feeling a range of emotions, including relief or anxiety, about their children going back to school, and Valonis noted that all those feelings are valid, too. Caregivers’ routines will also change with the start of the school year, and Kirk and Valonis encourage them to allow themselves time and space to adjust, as well.
Although students, teachers, and caregivers may be longing for a return to normal, the upcoming year will not be the same as school years prior to the pandemic. In dealing with all of the transitions students and families are going through, Kirk urges everyone to “function with grace.”
“Give your children grace, offer yourselves as parents grace, and offer the school and educators grace as we figure a lot of this out,” Kirk said.
While so much of this school year feels unknown and new, Kirk still feels hopeful. During pandemic learning, students demonstrated immense flexibility and resilience — skills that will help them succeed academically and in other aspects of their future lives.
Through remote education, students improved their study habits, time management, and work ethic, Clarke said. Students also developed problem-solving techniques that they can transfer back to the classroom and beyond, Trail said. They learned new technological skills and demonstrated an impressive ability to use online communication methods, with kids as young as elementary school composing emails, Kirk and Valonis said.
“I think our young people are the most resilient, and they’re the ones that keep us going,” Kirk said. “As long as we can continue to offer that grace, and take pause as needed, and regroup every time we have to, and do that monitoring and adjusting, they’re going to be amazing. They’re going to be amazing.”