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Kansas City Parents, Prepare Your Kids For A School Year Unlike Any Other

Peyton Galloway
North Kansas City Schools
Students at North Kansas City's two year-round schools were back in class for a few weeks in July. Now they're back at home until at least Sept. 8. Health experts are warning parents to plan for periodic school closures next year as the coronavirus spreads in the community.

The numbers are headed in the wrong direction for an in-person start to the school year in many communities, and when buildings can reopen, it won't mean a return to pre-pandemic learning. Here's what the experts say to expect.

Although it’s becoming less and less likely that the school year will start on time and in person in the Kansas City area, parents who want their kids to be educated face-to-face still need to be preparing for an experience that won’t look anything like school did in the spring.

“I think it’s really critical that the community understands that in-person does not mean business as usual,” said Megan Foreman with the Johnson County Health Department during a forum last week. “This does not look like last August when we sent our kids back to school and we all stood outside and took pictures.”

Foreman said parents need to prepare their students to wear their masks, wash their hands and sit in assigned seats on the bus, in the classroom and in the cafeteria.

Here’s what experts recommend doing to get your kids ready for the 2020-21 school year.

1) Have your kids practice wearing a mask before the first day of school.

Let’s face it: face masks get sweaty and uncomfortable, and even adults struggle to keep them on. But they’re also the best way to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, in Kansas counties that kept the governor’s mask ordinance, cases are declining, according to Health Secretary Lee Norman. The majority of school districts in the metro will expect students to wear masks this fall.

Start by making sure your child can take their mask on and off by themselves.

“If you can’t tie your shoes, you can’t tie a mask back here,” Foreman said. “There are just some sort of basic considerations I think parents are going to need to think about.”

You should also make sure that your child’s masks don’t violate rules your district has set. Some schools have asked parents not to send their children in gaiters, lightweight scarves that can be pulled up over the face. Other districts won’t allow face shields, which shouldn't be used on their own anyway because they don’t contain respiratory droplets as well as masks.

Lee's Summit R-7 School District
Lee's Summit held summer school in person last month, but Superintendent David Buck has told the school board to prepare for a virtual start to the school year. On Friday, the health department released that recommendation for districts in Eastern Jackson County not already following the Kansas City Health Department's guidance for delaying the first day of school.

Then it’s time to have your child practice wearing a mask.

“You might start with 30 seconds,” said Gail Robertson, a clinical psychologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital. “You might start with five minutes and keep building that skill over time. Ideally, associate it with something positive. That's even better. Make masks available during playtime for our younger children.”

Robertson said you can talk to both younger and older kids about why wearing a mask at school is important during a pandemic.

And she’s not opposed to rewarding kids by letting them have some screen time on a phone or tablet while they’re learning to wear their mask.

2) Now is the time to get back into a routine.

You know how you usually spend the last few weeks of summer making your kids go to bed when it’s still light outside so they’ll actually wake up on the first day of school? Yeah, don’t skip that this year.

“You might not know every detail, but you know your kids will have to get up early again, you know they’re going to have to get all of their materials ready in the morning,” Robertson said. “If they’re virtually learning, which is a type of going back to school, they’re going to need to set up their computer or tablet.”

She recommends having children practice new parts of the routine, like making sure they have a clean mask to take to school every day.

Robertson said it might be harder to re-establish routines this year because kids have been out of school for so long. Many teenagers have gotten used to sleeping late, and if they’re attending in person, they’ll have to get up early again.

If your family has enrolled in online learning, or your district has already announced the school year will start virtually, ask what time your kids will need to be logged in each day. They might be expected to chat with their teacher every morning – or they might be learning at their own pace.

In that case, it might not make sense to make your night owl get up at the crack of dawn.

“Something we know about teenagers especially is they tend to have what’s called a delayed sleep phase. They tend to fall asleep later and wake up a little later. That’s very natural, but it’s not very conducive to school as it is structured in the United States,” Robertson said. “If there is some flexibility, and you know your child will complete the work ... you can absolutely pick your battles.”

3) Explain to your child that they will have to follow rules that they didn’t last year.

“We talk about flexibility, and the thing kids are going to have to be flexible about is assigned seating everywhere they go,” Foreman said.

“They’re not going to like it, but that’s how we can best limit those exposures. You’re going to eat lunch with the same group of kids every day.”

Lee’s Summit R-7 School District
The vast majority of Lee’s Summit students and staff will be expected to wear masks next year. The one exception is bus drivers, who will wear masks while kids are getting on and off buses but can take them off while driving. The district will leave an empty row of seats between drivers and students.

Students will also be asked to sit in the same seats on the bus – preferably with siblings, not friends – and at the same desk every day to make contract tracing easier. If your children have friends in another class or grade that they’re used to playing with at recess, you need to prepare them for the likelihood that won’t be possible this year.

Elementary school students are used to sharing desks and supplies with classmates, but that isn’t recommended next year. Teachers are being told to remove comfortable seating like couches and cushions, and that means your child might be walking into a barren classroom next year.

“Many teachers are taking videos of their classroom, or they're posting pictures of what the new classroom looks like,” Robertson said. “Those things can be shared with your child and really ease some of that anxiety.

4) Let your kids ask questions.

By second or third grade, students can understand abstract concepts like germs. They’ve already been taught to cough into their elbow to keep other people from getting sick, and most will understand we’re taking precautions because of a virus, Robertson said.

You know your children best and should talk to them in terms you think they’ll understand.

They might ask you questions you don’t know how to answer, and that’s OK. “It's very reasonable that parents aren't going to have all the answers, and you can say, ‘I’m not sure yet, but I’ll find out.’ Or, you and your child can ask together when that time comes,” Robertson said.

Remember, not even public health officials know what the infection curve will look like in two to four weeks when schools are supposed to reopen. They’re making recommendations to school superintendents based on pandemic conditions they can’t control.

5) Have a plan for when plans change.

In all likelihood, your child is going to wake up with a sore throat or get sent home with a fever at some point this year.

Schools are asking parents to keep kids at home if they have any of coronavirus symptoms, most of which mimic the common cold: fever, runny nose, cough, fatigue, muscle aches, vomiting or diarrhea. Children’s symptoms tend to be milder than adults, but they can still infect others, so parents need a plan for child care even if it turns out to be the sniffles.

CC -- U.S. Army
School nurses will have to manage coronavirus symptoms in their buildings this fall. That's tough because many kids have mild symptoms, and COVID-19 can look like cold, flu and allergies.

Of course, planning for child care during a pandemic is easier said than done. Some parents will want to look into taking emergency leave to care for their children. Congress has approved up to 80 hours of emergency sick leave for employees who have been told to quarantine or who are taking care of someone with COVID-19.

Parents can also take up to 10 weeks of leave to care for a child whose school has closed due to the pandemic, though not all workers are eligible.

Even if you’ve enrolled your children in in-person learning, expect that they will be learning online periodically throughout the school year. Their class might have to quarantine – or their sports team may have to, too.

Now is also the same time to make sure you know what days your children will attend if their school switches to a hybrid schedule. Most districts are also letting families know how much advance notice they’ll give before closing school buildings again. Some are saying that it’ll take at least two weeks for them to pivot; others say the call could come overnight, like a snow day.

6) Follow health department recommendations -- now.

“For those students who want to be in school, now is not the time to host a house party,” said Sanmi Areola, director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.

It’s also not the time to take a trip, attend a graduation party or host a birthday celebration. If you want your child’s school to reopen for in-person learning this fall, you should be staying home as much as possible right now.

Right now there is uncontrolled community transmission of the coronavirus across the metro. Masking helps. But the best way to stop the spread is to limit your interactions as much as possible to household members. Work remotely if you can. If you must socialize, do so outside in very small groups.

If you get the dreaded call from the health department to say you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus, pick up the phone, answer the questions and then stay home for 14 days as a precaution, even if you feel fine.

And yes, that means skipping school, work, socialization and, critically, sports practice, as many of the school-related outbreaks so far have been there.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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