Worried about getting your kids ready for school during the pandemic? We asked the experts for help

Back-to-school jitters are expected but this year may be especially daunting for children and parents. So CBC News asked the experts how to talk to your kids about the pandemic, answer their questions, and get them ready to go to school amid COVID-19.

Wearing masks, washing hands, screening for symptoms, calming kids' fears a big part of school year

As soon as they walk through the door of their school, Toronto District School Board students will be asked a series of screening questions about any potential symptoms they may have. (CBC News)

Back to school jitters are totally normal but this year may be especially daunting for both children and parents as we prepare for a school year unlike any other in living memory.

In the weeks leading up to the first day of school, we've seen new rules, recommendations and COVID-19 infection data — all things that parents need to consider when deciding to enrol their children for online or in-class learning. 

For those who are sending their kids back to the classroom, here's some advice from the experts on hand washing, masks, what to pack in their backpack, and conversations you'll want to have before and after school. 

Masks and how to store them 

Experts are recommending that children bring at least one extra mask with them to school. You know your kids best. If they tend to lose things or get messy, throw a couple of spare masks in their backpack if you think you need to. 

A mask can easily become contaminated if there's too much fiddling with it, if someone else touches it, or if the mask is not stored properly. So, consider packing a clean, sealable bag too. 

Kids should have at least one extra mask as a backup packed in their schoolbag along with a bag to store any potentially contaminated ones. (CBC News)

This will come in handy when the mask can be taken off while eating or drinking.

"They can put it either on a clean, dry surface like a table, on top of a piece of paper towel with the part that touches the mouth facing up," infectious disease specialist Dr. Alon Vaisman said.

Vaisman, who works with Toronto's University Health Network, also suggests you do as health-care workers do and place the mask inside a clean bag.

"But remember, if you place it in a clean bag, just be aware that that bag now is contaminated; you shouldn't put any clean masks in that bag again."

If your child wears a reusable fabric mask, Vaisman says it's a good idea to wash it right after they get home from school. 

"You can just throw it directly in the washing machine."

Hand sanitizer 

Make sure your child has some alcohol-based hand sanitizer to take to school. 

Small bottles you can pop into or hook onto their backpack are good options when they're on the go. 

A dime-size squirt of hand sanitizer is good for a quick clean of the hands on or after riding the bus, touching a surface they're unsure of, or before adjusting their mask (only when necessary). 

Small bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitizer are easy to pack for kids. (CBC News )

Experts emphasize it's important to keep up proper hand washing. Make sure your kid knows to scrub for about 20 seconds with soap and water after using the bathroom. Some suggest humming the Happy Birthday song to ensure they're doing it long enough to get a thorough scrub. 

Pre-screening your child 

Chances are your child will be asked screening questions upon arriving at school. However, school boards are also asking parents to do that at home first — something Vaisman also endorses.

He says pre-screening can prevent kids from spreading the novel coronavirus in class if parents can detect potential symptoms in their children and keep them at home.

Schools will be asking students screening questions upon entering the building. School boards are asking that parents or guardians do this at home beforehand as well. (LM Otero/The Associated Press)

"That makes a lot of sense. Instead of taking your child to school and potentially exposing them to people there, you're better off not going at all," he said. 

So, look out for any potential symptoms of COVID-19 in your children and ask them how they're feeling. 

Potential symptoms include:

  • Fever.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Cough.
  • Runny nose.
  • Sore throat.
  • Changes in taste or smell. 

Nausea has occasionally been a symptom of COVID-19 in children. Vaisman says always err on the side of caution, even if it's the sniffles.

"It's going to be a major challenge in the wintertime because we have lots of circulating respiratory viruses that are not COVID that cause similar mild symptoms," he said. 

"If there's any uncertainty, it's a good idea to stay home and seek advice from medical professionals." 

'Prep-talk,' then debrief 

Understand that back-to-school nerves are going to be heightened while your child adjusts to the "new normal." 

Jessamine Luck, a spokesperson for Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, says parents need to be there to answer any questions their child may have. 

"Parents can encourage their children to ask questions about their worries and use age-appropriate language to answer," Luck told CBC Toronto. 

"It will be important to reassure them that COVID-19 tends to cause mild [symptoms] in children and youth, and that public health measures are in place to keep them and others safe at school." 

The prep-talk can happen before school with pre-screening and a run-through to make sure your child has the essentials--A mask on their face when entering school, at least one for backup with a bag for storage and sanitizer.

Debriefing about their day is good too to get an idea of what anxieties may remain. 

Shelley Murphy, a former elementary school teacher and now a lecturer at the University of Toronto, says it helps to talk to kids about their fears, validate them and teach them what they can control in the situation.

"Washing their hands, using hand sanitizer, avoiding touching their face, wearing a mask, keeping a safe distance. We want to give them a sense of control in a world where we have less control than we typically do," she told CBC Toronto. 

Your resources

The Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) has lots of advice and resources on their website, including a fact sheet about parenting and coping during the pandemic here

Public health units have COVID-19 hotlines that you can call. 

Most school boards have published their reopening plans online, including their health and safety guidelines for a safe return to school.