Homeroom: Returning to the Classroom Might Not Be Easy

Transitioning back to in-person school will be a profound shift. How can I help my son prepare?

An illustration of a parent pushing a kid down a slide that leads into a classroom
Elena Xausa
squiggly pencil

Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at homeroom@theatlantic.com.

Dear Abby and Brian,

Our 11-year-old son has been in virtual learning since March 2020. It’s been a daily struggle, to say the least. He is an only child who is incredibly social, and we can see the isolation taking its toll on him emotionally. Now that my husband and I are close to being fully vaccinated, we are preparing to transition our son back to in-person school. We understand what a profound shift this will be for our son, and we wanted some insight into how to make it as seamless as possible. Do you have any suggestions on how to equip him for heading back into the classroom?

Rogers, Ark.

Dear Ryan,

After an impossibly hard year, many Americans are finally beginning to feel cautiously optimistic. Many schools are reopening for in-person learning. For exhausted parents, school reopenings bring both relief and yet another challenge: how to make the transition to in-person learning a positive one. Your job now is to prepare your son for what he can expect—logistically, socially, and emotionally—when he returns to school in a physical classroom.

Start off by discussing with your son what the change will mean for his day-to-day rhythms. Safety measures such as social distancing, mask wearing, and COVID-19 testing will have significantly altered how his classroom operates compared with the last time he was in school. Make sure he understands that increasing vaccinations and declining case rates in your state and much of the country have made returning to the classroom safe for students. But as part of this conversation, emphasize that these other measures are nevertheless still necessary.

The next step is trying to approximate the schedule of an in-person school day. Starting a week or two before your son returns to school, get him in the habit of waking up and going to sleep earlier. Because remote school typically starts later and there’s no commute to worry about, in-person school requires an earlier bedtime and wake-up. So if your son is waiting until the morning-of to get his work done, he should begin completing his homework the afternoon or evening before it’s due.

In addition, see if your son’s teacher can provide a schedule for in-person school so that you can help him acclimate to the new routine ahead of time. If, for example, your child has been watching recorded videos of classes instead of joining them live, he can shift his schedule to mirror that of his upcoming in-person classes. Posting his schedule prominently in his room can help him stay on track.

This schedule will not only help with time management; it will also allow your son to figure out what supplies he’ll need for each class. Many kids attending remote school have work spaces that have fallen into disarray, littered with piles of paper and broken pencils. Now is the perfect time for your son to do some spring cleaning: He can set up a system to organize the materials he’ll use in school, and ask his teachers whether he will need additional books or papers when he is back in the classroom.

Along with a new schedule, one of the biggest changes that will likely come with attending school in person is more in-person socializing. If you haven’t been doing so already, see if you can work in time for your child to meet with a friend or two outside so they can get accustomed to seeing one another in person. When possible, encourage him to hang out with new friends too, and perhaps try an activity he has never done before.

Like you, your son is probably feeling a combination of excitement and dread about his return to school. After all, he’s just spent nearly 10 percent of his life learning remotely. Acknowledging those emotions is the most important part of preparing your son to reenter the classroom. Ask open-ended questions that allow him to talk through the discombobulation, sadness, and isolation he may be feeling. Whether or not your son wants to open up, checking in regularly will help him feel supported both now and moving forward.

Your son will be back in school for only a couple of months before the summer and then a new year of school. To help him in not just the weeks but the months ahead, try to frame this change as one in a series of steps back into something like normal life. As children approach that broader transition, the most fundamental way any parent can support them is by giving them a consistent space in which to process their emotions. Encouraging openness about the challenges he faces today will help him overcome obstacles he may encounter both during the pandemic and beyond.

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