How To Prepare For the 2020 School Year—No Matter What It Ends Up Looking Like

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It seems like only yesterday parents were counting down the days until the school year ended and we’d be finished coaching our kids through virtual learning while a pandemic played out. Now most of us are stressed all over again, except this time it’s about the upcoming school year—because so much about it is still uncomfortably “up in the air.” What will our choices be? Can we keep kids and teachers safe if we have in-person school? How will we manage childcare and online learning while parents work? The list of questions seems endless.

Although much about the 2020-21 school year is undecided, there are some things parents can start planning and thinking about now while school districts formulate their plans. Most experts seem to think that proposals will likely fall into one of three camps: attend school as usual (with safety precautions in place), go virtual, or a combination of both. Whatever comes your way, here are five things you can do now to prepare both you and your child for the new school year, whatever that looks like.

First, consider your options. 

Sure, you’re not a medical expert, but you are a parent, and no one knows you, your child, and your family dynamics better than you. It might not feel like it right now, but ultimately the school district doesn’t decide your child’s fate—you do, and you do have some options. 

If you depend on special education programs or free/reduced meals at school, for example, your family might lean toward an in-person option—but online teletherapy is also available for many special needs, and meals may be made available remotely for at-home students much like the end of last year, making virtual school more realistic for some. Some families are missing sports or other extracurriculars, especially when a child’s scholarship or other achievement is on the line, and those often aren’t allowed for online-only learners. In that case you might opt for in-person class—but if you don’t feel it’s safe (or if your district goes virtual-only), you can likely get the same benefits from a combination of virtual learning and properly socially distanced off-campus camps or clubs. 

On the other hand, if someone in your home is high risk, you have serious doubts about students’ ability to adhere to social distancing, or you have any other reservations about in-person school, you still have options—even if your district elects to only offer classes inside the school building. It’s important to remember that homeschooling is legal in all 50 states—though if you have to work outside the home, what most people think of as “traditional homeschooling” (where one parent stays home to teach the kids full time) may not be possible for you.

In those cases, try talking with a few close friends who also have children about pooling your resources. You might be able to hire a teacher to lead a small school pod, or you might be able to work out a rotating schedule among the parents that ensures the children have the instruction time they need and the parents can meet the demands of their jobs, too.

Talk to your kids. 

Online learning is obviously an adjustment, and lots of things are likely to be different even if they do go back—smaller class sizes, less playtime, lots of social distancing and mask-wearing. Making kids part of the conversation will help to boost their confidence in whatever decision your family ultimately makes.

Involve them as much as possible to give them a sense of control in all this uncertainty. That might mean letting them pick out the masks they’ll wear at school (some parents are getting a lanyard with a clip too, so their kiddo can’t lose the mask when they take it off for lunch or get it mixed up with other kids’ masks), or helping them set up an at-home “classroom” to study in. Starting the conversation early also ensures that big changes don’t sneak up on them—or you. This can go a long way toward providing your child the security and stability they so badly need right now. Once you have a clearer idea of the path before you, keep the conversation with them going, so they know what to expect when the time comes.

Bring back some semblance of routine. 

Even without a pandemic looming over us, most families have very different summertime routines than they do when school is in session. Whatever the next school year will look like, think about adjusting your child’s routine to fit that new model as soon as you can, so it feels gradual instead of abrupt. 

Even if you’re not yet 100% sure whether they’ll be going back to their regular school or not, there are some ways to reprogram your routine to prepare. For example, if you know they will be learning during the daytime (whether it’s virtual or not), start adjusting their sleep and wake-up times to accommodate that schedule. With reading being so important to comprehension, spelling, and language development overall, encourage reading and try reintroducing daily storytimes if they’ve fallen off the schedule during the summer. Make sure kids are socializing, whether that’s done safely in person or virtually online. You can also offer snacks and meals at times that will align with their school schedule. Even the smallest tweaks to your “summer/pandemic” routine can help both you and your child feel better prepared for next year.

That said, don’t abandon your new routine entirely. 

Many parents have said that one of the silver linings of spending so much time at home is that we’ve been able to enjoy more time with our children, even if at times it feels like you may lose your mind. Thanks to the pandemic, board games have been dusted off and family game nights have returned to kitchen tables. Bide rides and long walks have become regular occurrences, to say nothing of gathering for family meals instead of always rushing off to work/school/soccer practice/ballet class. Keeping those family activities going both now and during the school year will solidify your child’s feelings that their family unit is the foundation from which everything else grows. No matter what happens, they’ll know they can always come back to these moments for shelter and security, and there’s no reason to give that up, especially now, when there’s as much uncertainty hanging over us as ever.

Think about Plan B — and maybe C, too. 

Remember that just because your local school district announces their plan—or you choose an alternative one for yourself—things can always change again. There’s a chance that those plans may be revised if the virus continues to spread, a vaccine seems unlikely to become available as soon as experts hoped, or both. That said, if another lockdown becomes necessary, it will be different simply because we now have a much clearer idea of what we’re getting into.

Knowing what we know now, think about what plans you’d have liked to have in place back in March, when news of this pandemic hit. Maybe it’s something as simple as freezing extra dinners now so they’re ready to heat up on hectic days when school’s back in session. Consider discussing with your partner and anyone in your current “pandemic pod” how you’ll handle different worst-case scenarios. Who will stay with the kids? What happens if a teacher or classmate gets sick and everyone has to quarantine for two weeks? What if they do go back to school but the changes to the daily routine are so severe your child is too distracted to learn? Should you line up a private tutor to supplement their learning? If that sounds expensive, maybe you can identify a local college student studying education who can help ease some of the burden. 

The idea isn’t to add to your stress by thinking about these worst-case scenarios, it’s to consider them now so that if the potentially high-stress moment comes, you’re better prepared to deal with it. Depending on the age of your kiddo, you may want to discuss some of these Plans B and C with them, too. There’s no need to worry our kids unnecessarily about things that may not happen, but because of the speed at which action often needs to be taken in the wake of this virus, it’s better if the news is not a total shock—and depending on their personality, it may ease some of their anxiety if they know plans are in place for some of those “what ifs.”

No school year ever starts without some stress and anxiety, but with this particular one being so entirely different than anything we’ve seen before, taking a few small steps to prepare can make a world of difference.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.