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Experts say parents should continue home education for children this summer along with plenty of free time for playing. Getty Images
  • Experts say COVID-19 has significantly disrupted the education cycle for children.
  • They recommend parents be as forthright as possible with children about the pandemic and its effects.
  • They also advise parents to continue learning lessons for children this summer as well as plenty of “free play.”
  • They say parents should be prepared for every scenario this fall when classrooms are supposed to reopen.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended virtually every facet of life, including education.

When schools closed to stop the disease from spreading, more than 55 million K-12 students were forced from the classroom.

Virtual learning became the new norm, at least temporarily.

It’s a change that affects students, parents, and educators.

New research indicates that when classes resume in the fall, students will be less prepared than usual.

They call it the “COVID-19 slide.”

The researchers said that students in grades 3 through 8 may return with only 70 percent gains in reading compared to a typical school year.

In math, students may return with less than 50 percent of typical learning gains.

They suggest that in some grades, students will be almost a full year behind what would normally be expected.

Financial resources, stable employment, and adequate childcare give some families a leg up in virtual learning.

Students in families facing financial hardship and food insecurity have bigger disruptions that can interfere with learning. These children may not have access to technology and materials that can help them progress, the researchers reported.

The full extent of the problem remains to be seen, but children across the board will need additional support in the next school year.

The basic timing of the school year is something families traditionally have been able to count on.

That’s important because it affects childcare arrangements, parental employment, and social activities.

COVID-19 will probably be with us for some time. What will happen to the next school year, no one can say. And that’s stressful for all involved.

Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD, a psychologist in Connecticut, says that we all benefit from a sense of control and children are no different.

Capanna-Hodge told Healthline that in this time of academic uncertainty, parents need to prepare their children the best they can.

“Parents should start by sharing what they do know about what the next school year will look like. They want to do their best to paint the picture,” she explained.

“Parents should expect that their child will have some level of anxiety and a lot can be mitigated by working through your child’s worries in advance. Keeping the conversation going is very important. You should be having an ongoing dialogue about stress and how to manage worried feelings, as well as role modeling healthy ways to manage re-entry worries,” added Capanna-Hodge.

She advises parents to be vigilant and watch for behavioral signs of stress. That might include headaches, stomach aches, sleep problems, and regressive behaviors.

She also recommends going over the latest rules and regulations.

“Literally, role play out what six feet apart actually is and practice wearing those masks. When children know what to expect, they feel much more in control and their anxiety drops. It also gives children opportunity to safely ask questions and mentally prepare,” said Capanna-Hodge.

Those questions can help parents think through issues and consider additional supplies that may be needed.

Play is an important part of learning.

Free play allows children to find their own self-regulated happy place, said Capanna-Hodge.

She noted that in recent years, children have been given less free play in favor of more structured play and device time.

“Free play helps one to attune to their body and find a rhythm where they are calm and regulated. That daily practice helps children better respond to stress. When children are always occupied with high-stimulation activities, their nervous system doesn’t get a chance to go back to baseline and instead revs high. And a hyper nervous system is more reactive to stressors and simply has a harder time getting into that calmer state,” she explained.

Capanna-Hodge recommends at least 1 hour a day of unstructured free time. If needed, you can make a list of activities they can choose from when they’re bored.

Predictability and routine provide structure for all children. It may be especially important for children with special needs.

Without routine, parents may end up repeating themselves and nagging because children don’t function well on their own.

“Children with learning, attentional, or behavioral problems take longer to master tasks. When we have structure and routine, they can learn more efficiently,” said Capanna-Hodge.

You can schedule everything from learning activities to free time to sleep.

“Find a topic your child loves and then go deep. Listen to audiobooks, make a picture collage, create a play on it, make artwork on it, etc. These are the things that stimulate a child while keeping them engaged and learning,” said Capanna-Hodge.

Melissa Martin is a full-time middle school math teacher and 2020-21 Teacher of the Year for Florida Virtual School (FLVS).

Martin told Healthline that parents should continue a light learning routine over the summer.

Learning should feel more like fun and less like homework. She encourages fiction and nonfiction books that match a child’s interests and reading level.

“Build in time each day to ask children what they’ve learned about that day, whether on videos, social media, podcasts, books, TV, or even during play. Show children that learning can happen anywhere. This encourages them to think bigger,” advised Martin.

She says journaling of summer activities can improve writing. She also suggests creating a “matching agreement.”

“For every hour spent on non-learning screen time, have your child match that time with time spent on a screen-time learning, such as online math games, games that improve keyboarding skills, etc. And offer frequent positive feedback,” said Martin.

She also recommends “musical brain breaks,” especially for elementary school children.

“Look for ways to get kids up and moving. FLVS Elementary teachers say the breaks their students enjoy most involve a song and silly dancing. These mental breaks help children refocus, get some wiggles out, and most importantly, have fun,” said Martin.

If school buildings open in the fall, things will be different.

“It’s important to have patience with everyone, especially your child and your teacher, as change is hard,” said Martin.

She advises parents to find learning opportunities in the “real world.”

“What money skills can you teach your child? How can you use cooking to incorporate reading and math? Choose activities that don’t always require a lot of parent involvement. Self-directed learning offers a good break,” said Martin.

If kids are still learning virtually in the fall, it’s important to have a designated space for schoolwork. Martin also recommends going on field trips for some real-life learning and keeping a portfolio of your child’s work.

We don’t know yet if the coming school year will start off virtually or in classrooms. But open communication with teachers, administrators, and other parents may help lessen the impact of the COVID-19 slide.