Earlier this fall, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy joined a virtual conversation with ParentsTogether’s cofounder Bethany Robertson and the COVID-19 Community Corps about how parents can navigate the return to in-person schooling and the vaccine rollout as the pandemic continues.
Murthy, who is himself a parent of two small kids, shared his advice on keeping children safe in school and out in public. He also spoke on the extreme stress that many parents have been experiencing during the pandemic, and how that stress can impact kids.
For the moment, most children are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, so as much as possible, it’s important for families to take safety precautions when kids are in situations where they can’t stay distant from others, like at school.
Masks and kids
Murthy reinforced the commonly shared guidance that the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in a school setting is for everyone to wear a mask. Unfortunately, not all schools or localities are following that guidance, which has put some families in the uncomfortable position of having to make the choice for themselves whether or not to send their kids to school in masks.
If your school district does not require universal masking, the Surgeon General recommends checking in with your child’s teachers about the classroom culture around masks. Ask them if they’ve noticed any bullying or peer pressure directed at kids wearing masks. If you’re concerned about pressure from other kids, or even adults, directed at your child for wearing their mask, these scripts can help remind them why it’s so important to keep it on. If you’d like more ways to support masking policies in school, our Masks In Schools Family Action Toolkit can walk you through six simple options.
Don’t hesitate to speak up
The Surgeon General emphasized how much power parents have collectively when they advocate for the safety and wellbeing of their kids, such as in the ways the toolkit outlines. “It’s so important for all of us as parents to make sure that our voice is heard by our teachers, our school administrators, and our school boards, to let them know that this is a time when we should be, first and foremost, protecting our children.”
The more schools and school boards hear from parents, the more pressure they will feel to take the necessary precautions to keep schools as safe as possible. Murthy urges parents to think about their child’s typical school day, and where they may encounter risk. These are areas that you can use your voice to advocate for your child’s safety.
For example, it’s important to talk with your kids and the school about how they’re handling lunchtime. Because the masks come off, this can be a higher risk time of the school day for COVID-19 transmission. If you’re concerned that there isn’t enough space to social distance during lunch, Murthy recommends walking through with your child and their teacher to find some safer spaces where they can eat if possible.
Check in with your kids
While there is still a lot of uncertainty and stress around the pandemic and how to keep families safe, Murthy urges parents to remember that the top priority should always be making sure kids feel supported. “Sometimes kids know intrinsically that their parents love them, but I think this is one of those moments where saying it, reassuring our children that no matter what may come—and this pandemic has thrown lots of curveballs our way—we as parents will be there for them, we love them, we will do everything we can to keep them safe. That means a lot.”
As much as parents may try to spare their children the stress and tragedy of this difficult time, it’s impossible to shelter them entirely. Rather than pretending like everything is alright, it’s better to check in frequently with your kids to see how they’re feeling and what they’re absorbing about what’s going on in the news and in their community right now. Make sure they know you’re here and listening to their concerns. As the Surgeon General put it, “We are in a storm…and our children need something stable to hold onto.” Checking in frequently will let your kids know that you can be that stable presence for them.
Prioritize your own self-care
“I think if anything this pandemic has highlighted for us that we really underestimate and in some ways even undervalue the work of parenting, and how important that is. Supporting our kids isn’t just something that you do on the side. It’s something that takes time, it takes attention, it takes effort,” said Murthy.
Managing the huge challenge of remote school, remote work, and the ongoing pandemic brought on extreme stress for most families. As the vaccine rollout and the return to in-person school has started to ease this strain, many parents are still coping with the effects of this difficult time on their mental health and wellbeing.
To this point, Murthy has 3 tips for parents to get into a better mindset for the months ahead:
- Cut yourself some slack. “Give yourself a break, and recognize that everyone is trying to figure this out. Nobody is doing it perfectly. No one’s being the perfect parent right now in terms of measuring up to the standards that we want. But that’s ok. We are doing a lot for our kids, we’re standing by them during a hard time. Give yourself the credit that you deserve.”
- Nurture your relationships. “During times of stress, many of us actually tend to withdraw, we tend to not reach out to the people we love, our family and our friends, because life just seems too busy.” But actually, as Murthy says, “one of the biggest buffers we have during times of stress are our relationships with other people.” He recommends reserving at least 5 minutes a day to reach out to other people you care about—send some texts or make a quick phone call to an old friend to say hi!
- Spend time alone. “Moments of solitude are an important source of sustenance for us as well. Solitude is not just sitting alone in a corner. Solitude can be those moments where you just choose to sit out on your front porch and feel the breeze against your face. When you sit down with a piece of music that inspires you and just allow it to wash through you and lift you up again. Could be time you spend walking through the woods reconnecting with nature. It could be time you spend praying or meditating. But a few minutes of solitude is important each day because that’s when we gather ourselves, that’s when we allow ourselves to reground, and we let the noise around us settle. And there’s so much noise around us right now.”
If taking time for yourself while so much is going on feels like a guilty pleasure, let Surgeon General Vivek Murthy reassure you: “These are not indulgences. These are the steps we take to sustain ourselves during a very, very difficult period. And if we do that we will not only be better for ourselves, but we will be better for our kids. More fully there for them, able to sustain them during what will certainly be a tumultuous time.”