COVID-19 lockdowns and returning to school
Returning to school is important because children need in-person learning and social interactions for their overall development and their social and emotional wellbeing.
A COVID-safe return to school: what it might look like
The return to school will look different in different parts of Australia, depending on state, territory and local restrictions and rules.
Most schools will send out emails or other communications to let you know how they’re handling a COVID-safe return to school, so make time to read these. Some schools might also run online information sessions about the transition, so sign up for these if you can.
When you look at the information from the school, it’s good to check:
- what time your child should arrive at school and leave
- where your child should enter and leave the school
- how classrooms will be set up
- what will happen at recess and lunch time
- what facilities will be open – for example, the library and canteen
- whether extracurricular activities like sport and excursions will go ahead
- how the school is managing face masks, cleaning, hand hygiene, physical distancing, ventilation and so on
- how the school will support children to catch up on learning
- how the school will support children’s mental health and wellbeing
- how the school will manage COVID-19 cases at school or local outbreaks
- whether you need to return any borrowed items.
- what you can do to support the school’s COVID safety efforts.
It might help to know that COVID-19 vaccination in teenagers and adults helps to protect children who can’t yet be vaccinated against the virus, because it reduces the virus’s spread. Also, COVID-19 in children is usually a very mild illness. But if you have any health concerns about your child going back to school, you can talk with your GP or other health professional.
Children’s feelings about the return to school after lockdown
Children might have mixed feelings about returning to school. For example, they might be excited and eager to get back to face-to-face learning and seeing their teachers and friends. They might also feel uncertain, worried or anxious about catching up on learning, fitting back into friendship groups and coping with a school routine.
If your child has strong emotions about returning to school, give your child plenty of love and support at home. These ideas might also help:
- Be confident and enthusiastic about your child going back to school. This sends your child the positive message that they’ll cope and have fun when they get back into the school routine.
- Talk and listen to your child’s feelings about returning to school, and let them know that their feelings are OK. For example, ‘Yes, it will be great to see Hartley again’, ‘You can see how much the vegie patch has grown’ or ‘It’s OK that your brother is excited and you’re nervous’.
- Let your child know it’s OK to feel nervous or uncertain about returning to school, but reassure them that they’ll get through it. For example, ‘It’s OK to feel unsettled – it’s another big change’, ‘A lot of kids will be feeling the same as you’ or ‘The teachers will tell you what to do’.
- Help your child reconnect with their classmates. For example, you could organise a playdate in the park before the first day back, or practise lunch time conversations.
- Give your child some control. For example, ask what they want for school lunch or what they want to do after school.
- Practise breathing exercises or muscle relaxation activities with your child. These can help if your child is feeling very anxious.
If your child is feeling so anxious that you think it might be hard for them to return to school, it’s good to let the school know in advance. There are plenty of things school staff can do to help. For example, they might be able to pair up your child with a buddy or organise for a teacher or aide to welcome your child at the gate. Or your child might be able to start with short days and build up to full ones.
Practical preparations for the return to school after lockdown
Practical preparations can help the return to school go smoothly for your child. And a smooth transition can help your child with any anxious feelings too.
Here are practical things to do:
- Let your child know when they’ll be going back to school and how things will be different. It’s best to stick to the facts and use age-appropriate language. For example, ‘In the playground, you’ll need to stay in the Year 3 area. Your teacher will show you where that is’.
- Get your child back into their school routines. This includes your child’s bedtime routine and morning routines. You could try doing this the week before your child returns.
- Check your child understands COVID-19 precautions like how to wash hands and wear a mask if necessary.
- Check your child’s uniform still fits and that their lunch box, bags and stationery are ready. You could even have a practice run before the first day.
- If classroom doors and windows are being kept open for ventilation, check your child’s clothes are appropriate for the weather.
- Check that your child knows or remembers how to get to and from school.
- If your child uses an out of school hours care service, let your child know about any changes to the way the service does things.
The early weeks at school after lockdown
Starting back at school can be tiring, especially for younger children. Adjusting to school routines takes time. And schools will probably focus on helping children reconnect with friends and teachers, follow classroom routines, and learn to work in peer groups again. In the early weeks, this might even be more important than learning activities.
It means your child will probably have some ups and downs, and you might not see a lot of academic progress early on. That’s OK. The main thing is for your child to feel positive about being back at school. The rest will come with time and support.
These tips can help during the first few weeks back at school:
- Make sure your child gets plenty of healthy food, physical activity and sleep.
- Make time for doing something special with your child in the afternoon or evening. It could be something that you enjoyed during lockdown, like going for a walk after work. Or it could be a pre-lockdown ritual, like a cuddle and book before bed.
- Keep your family routines predictable, and make time for family activities. For example, try to make time for family meals as often as possible, or have family games or movie nights on the weekend.
- If your child is ready and has enough energy, get them back into some of their usual extracurricular activities.
- Try to stop what you’re doing and listen when your child wants to talk about school. Be patient if your child wants to tell you all the details.
- If your child doesn’t want to talk at all, try a conversation starter like, ‘Tell me one good thing and one bad thing about your day’ or ‘I noticed that you seem very sad today. I wonder why that is?’
- Help your child practise self-compassion if they’re feeling tired or finding it hard to adjust. For example, they could say, ‘I’m trying my hardest. It’s OK if I can’t remember how to do that maths problem’.
When children are struggling with the return to school after lockdown
Signs that children are struggling include changes in your child’s behaviour and emotions, like:
- sleeping more
- eating less
- seeming less interested in doing things
- withdrawing from you
- not actively participating in conversations
- being more clingy, grumpy or angry than usual
- refusing to go to school.
If you notice these signs or you just feel worried about how your child is coping, it’s important to get help as soon as possible.
As a first step, talk with your child’s teacher. The teacher can let you know whether they’ve noticed anything unusual in your child’s behaviour or emotions at school. They might also have ideas for supporting your child or put you in touch with the school counsellor. You can also talk with your GP.
Children aged 5 years and over can call Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.
Children with additional needs returning to school after lockdown
Autistic children and children with disability or additional needs might need extra support for the return to school after lockdown.
For example, if your child needs to take medicines or have injections at school, it’s a good idea to talk with the school about managing this in a COVID-safe way. Or you might need to work with the school on strategies to help your autistic child readjust to following a school routine, wearing a school uniform, being with other children and so on.
These articles have ideas that you can adapt for the return to school after lockdown:
- Starting primary school: children with disability
- Starting primary school: autistic children
- School refusal: autistic children and teenagers
- Anxiety at school: autistic children and teenagers
Looking after yourself during the transition back to school, family and work routines is important. It will also help you give your child the support they need. If you’re feeling stressed or have anxiety about the situation, try talking to a family member, a trusted friend or your GP. You can also call Lifeline on 131 114 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.