Teachers and professors know going back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be difficult, especially since they will have to teach children to distance, wear masks and keep their hands clean in school. Credit: Johnny Milano

When, and if, Long Island schools open in the fall, teachers must not only answer students' questions about the coronavirus but also make sure kids follow a new set of virus-related rules, educators and health experts agree.

Some of the challenges — in addition to classroom instruction — will be teaching children, especially young kids, to socially distance, wear masks and wash their hands, education leaders predict.

"The success of our school-based response to COVID-19 rests on the schools' ability to follow the public health guidelines," said Anthony Santella, a Hofstra University associate professor of public health. "It's going to be a much more restrictive environment, and that's going to be a challenge."

The state Education Department released a second set of guidelines to schools Thursday, saying districts should perform health checks, develop plans for social distancing and have plans to isolate ill people until they can be sent home. Schools also must instruct students and staff in proper hand hygiene, require wearing face coverings, and develop cleaning procedures for the building.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has crafted recommendations that focus on much of the same guidance. The agency also released a tip sheet on talking to children about the virus, which emphasizes listening to their concerns, calming their fears and offering accurate, age-appropriate information.

New York school districts must submit their reopening plans to the state by the end of the month. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is expected to announce the first week of August whether schools will reopen.

New realities

Freeport schools Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said he believes many children, if they return, will come to school already coached by their parents to wear a mask and take precautions.

“Many are already on that journey,” Kuncham said. “Things have already begun at home over the past 15 to 20 weeks.”

Inside the school building, he said, educators will "practice, educate and remind" students about the new realities of keeping safe. The district has provided teachers with resources such as age-appropriate videos and coronavirus-related stories, and Kuncham said he plans to largely leave it up to teachers to use their individual style to convey these lessons.

Dr. Ray Fabius, a co-founder of HealthNEXT, a Pennsylvania-based organization focused on building "cultures of health," suggested that teachers of young students start with a discussion about germs: Focus on how germs can make us sick if they enter our body, and that someone else can spread them by sneezing and coughing.

That is why hand-washing and physically distancing is necessary, Fabius said. He suggested getting kids invested through learning activities that are fun, such as having everyone in the class cut 6 feet of string to practice proper spacing. Then the kids can guess how far they should be from the person next to them. The closest guess is the winner, he said.

COVID-19 presents many opportunities to educate students, especially older ones, about how the body works and how disease spreads, Fabius said. But there's also the chance to teach young people important life lessons, such as thinking beyond themselves and acting as part of a community, Fabius said.

"Doing something for yourself, to protect someone else, is a tremendous lesson in social teaching," he said.

Fabius urged teachers to "lean in the direction of sensitivity." 

Children have been cooped up and will be excited about meeting their friends again, he said. Teachers can leverage that in a positive way, emphasizing that if students want school to remain open, they need to follow the rules, he said.

Uncertainties ahead

How capable children are of catching the virus — and spreading it — is still uncertain.

Some preliminary studies suggest kids are less likely to get ill from the virus and less likely to spread it, said Dr. Sharon Nachman, division chief for pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital. But some studies were done while schools were closed, she said.

Children have made up a fraction of reported cases, she noted. Other data suggests that older school children could be more likely to transmit the virus, she said.

"We do not have absolutely hard-fast information," Nachman said. "I suspect that once we start school, that's when we'll get a much better picture."

Reports from countries that already have opened schools vary, she said, and much of the results depended on what precautions were taken and what was happening with the virus in the community.

For example, New Zealand opened schools without any significant rise in cases, because the country had done a lockdown, masking and social distancing, she said. But Sweden saw a spike in cases in schools, in large part, she said, because proper precautions were not taken.

Cordelia Anthony, a science teacher at Farmingdale High School, said getting students to conform to these new rules could be challenging.

“I think it’s going to be daily enforcement,” said Anthony, who also is president of the Farmingdale Federation of Teachers. “It’s going to take constant reminders and consequences.”

She is especially concerned about younger students staying the course when they face “hot moments in September with a mask on.”

Anthony recalled when Farmingdale's high and middle school introduced ID badges for students last year. If a student didn’t wear one, the student was given a temporary ID on an orange sticker. If it happened several times, the student was taken aside and talked to. If it became a real problem, the student could face detention, she said.

'New way of doing things'

Ron Verderber, a music teacher in Jericho, said he sees difficulties in getting the children, and himself, to follow some rules.

"I don't know how we're going to stop the innate desire to give a student a hug or a high five," he said. "How do you explain that to a 6-year-old?"

He wonders how a teacher and students will maintain a 6-foot separation when, say, a student has trouble with a math problem.

"I can't even see their work" from that distance, said Verderber, who also is president of the Jericho Teachers Association. "I'm going to have to stop myself from going over there, without making it seem to the kid that I don't like them."

His spacing problems double when he teaches chorus at Jericho high and middle school, as the state guidelines recommend a 12-foot distance in such circumstances. 

"How am I going to teach them how to open their mouths when I'm wearing a mask?" Verderber said.

Verderber said he already has spoken to several middle and high-schoolers while remote teaching during the coronavirus crisis. He asks them about their feelings and frustrations, and assures them they are not alone.

"I stress it's OK not to be OK," he said. "This is a new way of doing things. Let's figure it out together."

As school districts work out their reopening plans, Santella, the Hofstra associate professor, said he worries that schools will be asking too much of the teachers, expecting them to become experts on COVID-19 as well as facilitators of health behavior change.

He believes Long Island's school districts should work together to create models of learning about the new ways. Moreover, all schools should dedicate the beginning of the semester to offer students an overview of COVID-19 and the new realities of school life, he said.

"People want to understand why; even children," he said. "Give them reasons. They'll feel more invested in protecting themselves, their loved ones and others."

Jodi Luce of East Meadow sees the reopening of schools much through the eyes of her two children. She and her husband have been talking to their daughter Sophie, 10, about wearing masks and social distancing. 

"She's used to it," Luce said. "Does she always wear a mask? No, so we remind her."

Her son Joshua, 15, also understands the value of these measures, she said. The family knows a few people who've lost their lives to the virus, and the kids understand their mother, who has asthma and an autoimmune disease, is in a vulnerable group.

Luce said she realizes that some kids come from households that don't emphasize mask-wearing and other protective measures.

"You have to explain to them there are rules for home and rules for school, and they are different," Luce said.

She believes parents have to be on board with the new ways, to the point where she would like to see districts have parents sign an agreement, as some districts do with a code of conduct.

Moreover, Luce has faith that teachers know how to teach and will successfully instruct children on these new habits.

"Teachers are amazing at setting the tone and procedures and routines," she said.

Teaching tips

Tips on teaching children to wear masks, socially distance and wash hands in school:

  • Stay calm. Remember that children will react to both what you say and how you say it.
  • Reassure children that they are safe. Let them know it's OK if they feel upset.
  • Make yourself available to listen and to talk.
  • Pay attention to what children see or hear on television, radio, or online. Too much information on one topic can lead to anxiety.
  • Provide information that is truthful and appropriate for the age and developmental level of the child.

SOURCE: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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