Back to School 2020: What Will Learning Look Like for Your Child This Year as the Covid-19 Pandemic Continues?

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused; COVID-19 Topics

[This article has been published in dozens of media outlets across the country.]
School districts have several factors to consider as the 2020-2021 school year starts – how do they keep their students and staff safe? How do they ensure that students are getting a strong education? What about students’ social interaction with peers? Download this article and tips as a pdf.

Although many districts have their initial game plans ready, these plans may change and/or other schools may still be in the decision-making process. Given the uncertainty of how students will be participating in school in the fall and beyond (i.e., virtual/remote learning, in-person, or a hybrid model), as caregivers, you are in a unique position to help your child prepare for any of the three outcomes. This may seem like a daunting task, but let’s take it piece by piece. I will review the models and offer some key ways to help your child prepare:

Remote/Virtual Learning

What it is: Your child learning remotely (i.e., not in a school building) using technology such as a Google Classroom or other virtual learning environment and/or using work packets sent home from school.

Tips to Prepare

— Remind your child that this is how school will be starting but that, at some point, they will be returning to school.

— Check in with your child regularly. Give them time to express their worries and concerns about not going to a school building (e.g., missing friends and teachers, feeling bored, etc.). Some children may not want to talk about their worries and may prefer to draw their worries in a picture or write about their worries.

PRO TIP: When your child shares their worries/concerns with you, you can follow these steps: (1) repeat what they said and/or ask them to talk to you about their drawing, (2) thank them for telling you, and (3) then provide calm/reassuring information. Although some of the things they say might sound silly, remember that children typically process information differently from adults. In their mind, it is a genuine concern.

— Prepare your home environment to increase the likelihood of a successful online-only learning experience. Some tips include: 

Have clear boundaries. Identify a specific table/area as the school space. Remove distracting materials from the space. You and your child can even work together and use colored tape to outline the school space to make it fun!

Furniture. Make sure the furniture in the school space is comfortable and meets your child’s needs. For example, sometimes kitchen tables can be so tall that a child would have to stretch up and over it to reach things. You may need to modify your current setup to ensure your child can easily work with their school materials. Another option is to allow your child to stand up while they work – many kids can focus more easily if they can stand up and move around while they work!

Seating check. Does your child like to watch TV? Or perhaps they love their box of Legos or train set? PlayStation fan? Position their seat in the school space so they are not facing their beloved toys/distractors. Out of sight (is more likely to be) out of mind. After creating the school space, keep the environment as consistent as possible (i.e., try not to “switch it up”). 

— Incorporate fun activities into your child’s day at home. Leah Kaufman (occupational therapist) and Marja Ruderman (speech and language pathologist) at May Institute offer the following tips for helping kids have fun while learning at home: 

Stay connected. Utilize technology to plan phone/video calls with relatives and friends. 

Stay active. Go for a walk at least once a day. Talk about what you see while on your walk (bring paper to draw different animals or flowers). Practice some yoga moves or play freeze dance. I also recommend incorporating technology into this – many game systems have games that involve standing up and moving around. Additionally, YouTube has several free get-up-and-dance videos that are appropriate for children and teens.

Prepare simple snacks or meals together. Snacks such as trail mix and yogurt parfaits are easy recipes to follow. 

Create a schedule that incorporates clear online-learning time and time for breaks. In general, it may be best to try doing online-learning time in the morning for younger children and in the late-morning/afternoon for pre-teens/teens. Details for making (and keeping!) a schedule can be found here in the Make a Schedule section.


In-Person Learning

What it is: Your child going to a physical school building to attend school.

Tips to Prepare

— Remind your child that this is how school will be starting but that, at some point, they will may return to online learning.

— Check in with your child regularly (see previous section).

— As much as possible, learn about the different procedures that might be in place at school upon your child’s return. An excellent resource is your school’s (or school district’s) website. These procedures may include mask policies, hallway policies (e.g., “one-way” hallways), lunch/snack routine alterations (e.g., lunch in the classroom), and changes in recess, amongst others. By knowing more about these changes, you can help communicate them to your child – the ultimate goal and your caregiver mantra should be: “The fewer surprises the better.”

Let your child know that school is going to look very different from before. Inform them of any changes at their school that may be coming. Describe some of the differences. Show them examples/pictures on the computer (e.g., use Google Images to find a picture of “children in class wearing masks”). 

Provide your child with plenty of time to ask you questions.

— Keep as many beginning-of-school routines as “normal” as possible. This year, back-to-school shopping may look different, but you can still make it fun for your child. For example, rather than physically going to stores, go online with your child and shop for school supplies with them. 

— For school supplies that may have a worrisome context to children (items relating to health/safety such as masks or hand sanitizer), give them as many choices as possible when selecting these items. For example, “Do you want to use the blue mask today or do you want the mask with flowers?” This simple gesture will give them a valuable sense of control during this challenging time.

— Incorporate fun objects that help them feel and be safer while at school. For example, have them choose a fanny pack to use at school or – even better – make one. It does not have to be anything fancy, just a pack that wraps around them. This can be their special space where they keep extra masks, hand sanitizer, or other calming supplies (like a special supportive note from you!).  

— Even though your child may initially be going to school in-person, it is a good idea to consider having an at-home learning space ready to go in case schools need to switch to another model (remote/virtual learning or a hybrid model). Prepare your home environment to increase the likelihood of a successful online learning experience (see previous section).


Hybrid (mix of in-person and remote learning)

What it is: Your child attending some school remotely (i.e., not in a school building) and some school in-person. The amount of time spent in-person and in remote learning may vary depending upon the guidelines adopted by your child’s school or school district.

An example of a hybrid schedule could be for half of the school’s students to have in-person learning on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays, with Wednesdays set aside for a deep cleaning of the school. On the weekdays they are not physically attending classes, students would participate in online learning.

The hybrid model requires a great deal of flexibility from everyone involved – school administrators, teachers, students, and their families.

Tips to Prepare

The tips in the Remote/Virtual Learning and In-Person sections are also applicable for this model. In addition, I would recommend that you remind your child that this is how school is currently taking place but that, at some point, they might be returning to school full-time or return to remote learning full-time.  

— Make a schedule. Having routines disrupted can be very stressful for everyone in the family, especially children. Making a schedule can help provide the consistency your child needs. Details for making (and keeping!) a schedule can be found here in the Make a Schedule section.


Download this article and tips as a pdf.


By Whitney L. Kleinert, Ph.D., LP, LABA, BCBA-D,  former Director of School Consultation at May Institute.