PISCATAWAY, NJ — Gearing up for the start of the 2020–2021 school year amid the pandemic has presented new challenges for parents. Many are looking for ways to help alleviate concerns about sending children back to schools safely, choosing between virtual, stay-at-home instruction or hybrid plans that limit the number of in-person days spent with teachers and classmates.

To offer some guidance, TAPinto Piscataway reached out to Fanteema Barnes, a licensed clinical social worker in Piscataway for tips for parents to consider as they prepare their children for the upcoming school year.     

Barnes, who has over 20 years of experience in the social work field conducting research, providing therapy, working in public schools, teaching graduate students, and serving as a motivational speaker for college students is also a mom of a school-aged son with ADHD.

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TAPinto: The start of a new school year can be exciting for some children but may cause anxiety for others.  How can parents best support children going back to school during this pandemic?  

Barnes: The COVID-19 pandemic has created many unprecedented challenges for everyone, so it’s very important for parents to stay informed about what’s happening in their child’s school district. This is a fluid situation, and things are constantly changing. Every family situation is different, so parents need to make decisions that will work best for their children and household. 

Communication is key during this challenging time. Parents should have conversations with their children, especially if they seem anxious or worried. It gives them comfort to know that their parents are listening to them and validating their concerns. Also, as parents establish new routines or make adjustments to their family’s current back-to-school routines, they should involve their children in the process when possible.

TAPinto: What advice would you give to help parents who are worried about sending their children back to school for in-person instruction?

Barnes: Schools in New Jersey can only open for in-person instruction if they meet all health and safety standards. Therefore, if parents are worried about sending their children back to school for in-person instruction, they should stay aware of all procedures planned for the school day that will keep children safe and healthy. Parents should reach out and talk to their child’s principal about any questions or concerns they may have.

There is no 100% right or wrong decision. Each family has their own needs. Think about how your child did in school Pre-COVID-19 and think about if these new conditions will make them regress or help them to excel. For example, if you have a child with special needs and sitting still was already hard for them, do you think they will be able to sit still with a mask on all day? Or if your child has social anxiety or was being bullied, maybe they felt a big sense of relief being able to do remote learning and putting them back in the classroom could make things worse for them emotionally.

Also, we have to remember that this is a new situation with many unknowns for everyone: parents, students, school administrators, teachers, school nurses, guidance counselors, other school personnel, bus drivers… We are all in this together. BE kind to yourself and others throughout this process.

TAPinto: What can parents do to help children who are worried about the idea of social distancing and having to wear a mask while in school?

Barnes: After parents listen to and acknowledge their child’s concerns, they should talk with them about the values of wearing a mask and social distancing, and how this can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Also, some school districts like Piscataway Schools will have mask or face covering “breaks” built into the school day.   

Remember, social distancing really means physical distancing and does not mean emotional distancing, so parents can find safe ways to have their children connect with friends outside of school hours, too.   

TAPinto: For parents who are opting for remote instruction only, how can they make sure that their children are staying engaged and keeping up with their online classes?

Barnes: This is a great opportunity for parents and children to work together to set-up a remote learning space at home. Parents can also help their children establish and maintain daily routines such as getting dressed, eating breakfast and following the schedule for their online classes. Parents may even want to consider having a college student or educator help out with remote learning if possible.  

TAPinto: What advice do you have for parents who may have experienced a COVID-related death of a family member? They may be scared, but need their children to return to school for financial reasons.

Barnes: Grief is natural after the loss of someone or something that is important to you. Everyone grieves differently. It’s a process and the stages don’t happen in any particular order.

During the pandemic, I have worked with and helped find resources for individuals who have lost loved ones due to the illness. Be compassionate with yourself while grieving, find ways to alleviate stress, or talk with a grief counselor. Parents can also reach out to counselors at their child’s school for additional resources.

For more information about sending children back to school this fall, Fanteema Barnes can be contacted at The SWEET Network by visiting www.thesweetnetwork.com or by subscribing to her YouTube channel for the latest videos on this topic at www.tinyurl.com/sweetyoutube.