New York City’s school buildings are closing Thursday, just as many children had started to get used to being back in classrooms.
Mayor Bill de Blasio warned last week that closures could be imminent, as the coronavirus positivity rate neared the 3% shutdown threshold. He outlined that as soon as the city hit that benchmark, based on a seven-day average, schools would close the following day. Mental health experts questioned that timeline, and why the mayor created an emergent situation that put parents on edge and did not provide the opportunity for all children who have returned to schools to say goodbye to their teachers. By making the announcement so late in the day, after most schools already closed for the day, few teachers were able to tell students in person what was happening.
While the majority of public school students were already learning remotely full-time, some 280,000 students were back in classrooms part-time. The building shutdowns may be a shock to them and their families, even though the closures were on the horizon as COVID-19 cases ticked up over the past several weeks.
On the plus side, those hybrid students have had the opportunity to meet and develop connections with their teachers — relationships that they can continue to foster in the remote setting, experts said.
“Fortunately, teachers and children have had at least some days and weeks to get to know each other before schools are forced to shut down again,” said Lesley Koplow, a clinical social worker and director of Emotionally Responsive Practice at Bank Street, “giving both teachers and children the beginning of a relationship basis to build on through the virtual interaction that will follow.”
Here are some other ways that schools and parents can help students make the latest transition to fully remote learning.
Have developmentally appropriate conversations with children
Don’t shy away from talking about pandemic-related school closures, advised Cindy Huang, a child psychologist and assistant professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
“Too many parents avoid it, but kids know what’s going on,” she said. “You just do it in developmentally appropriate ways. Explain what happens when COVID rates go to 3%. They’re kind of mini scientists because of this. The kids are really good at this — they are sitting in their classrooms, wearing masks, and learning to be socially distant.”
‘Find your calm’
The transition to all-remote might be stressful for parents and educators as they have to adapt to yet another new reality — and that can be hard on children. The mayor has yet to clarify how long schools might remain closed or what benchmarks he will use to re-open them.
“Right now it seems like it’s up to this man’s whims,” Huang said about the mayor’s process for closing schools. “It doesn’t help when the people dictating the decisions don’t have a clear plan. The uncertainty has a very adverse effect on mental health for parents.”
That, in turn, trickles down to children, who might internalize family stressors.
Huang has already noticed an uptick in parents needing more behavioral supports for their children and more children acting out this year.
“If adults start to feel outraged or upset and are really charged, children will feel it,” echoed Kevin Dahill-Fuchel, executive director for Counseling In Schools, which places social workers in high-needs schools across the city. “If adults can flow with it, and go with ‘Plan B,’ then it becomes more about finding ways to mitigate stress.”
Without being able to stay calm it’s difficult to then problem solve, experts said.
Parents and teachers should think about the following mantra: regulate (find your calm), relate, reflect and reason, said Silvia Juarez-Marazzo, a clinical social worker and adjunct professor at Brooklyn College who writes children’s books for immigrant families.
“When the adult is calm, he can give the child a reflective response; a response that comes from trying to understand what the child is experiencing and needs,” Juarez-Marazzo said.
Keeping routines as consistent as possible is important since children learn by forming expectations, said Juarez-Marazzo.
“Routines have inherent flexibility, especially now; there is predictability and a rhythm, but small changes happen here and there,” she said. “The child needs to know that to be safe, we have to do things different again, and that it is OK to be upset and to miss them, but parents and teachers will find ways to keep some things they love, like story time, happening.”
Huang also stressed the importance of building new routines and expectations, especially as the pandemic isn’t likely to go away in the immediate future.
“This helps bring back some of the control parents are longing for,” she said.
Find ways to build community or create teachable moments
Schools and families can mitigate some of the blow by finding creative ways to address the closures, advised Dahill-Fuchel.
For example, to help younger children stay socially engaged, class parents or a school’s PTA could help facilitate small groups of children at a local playground, with a rotating group of parents watching them, he suggested.
For older children, this moment can be incorporated into academic lessons, he suggested.
“What does a 3% rolling average mean? There are maps with averages across the city. There are some high school students who might want to be politically active and see how those rates are different in different places. There are opportunities to have discussions about individual responsibility versus communal responsibility,” Dahill-Fuchel said. “Are there lesson plans that schools can put forward?”
Think about the whole family
Just as parents will need to give teachers some space and grace, teachers need to understand where families are coming from.
“We cannot expect to engage little ones in an hour of Zoom class with ABCs, but we can expect to engage him for a 15-minute child’s sing-along and dancing,” said Juarez-Marazzo. “We cannot expect that parents, overwhelmed by layers of personal and collective losses and by the stress of making ends meet and caring for their other children, [to] follow up on assignments. … But we can ask them to become part of that dancing and sing-along with their little ones.”