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Coronavirus And Parenting: What You Need To Know Now

The coronavirus is raising a lot of questions for parents, like what does it mean to work from home while parenting young children?
Westend61/ Getty Images
The coronavirus is raising a lot of questions for parents, like what does it mean to work from home while parenting young children?

Updated on March 16 at 1 p.m. ET to reflect new guidance on play dates during school closures. This is an evolving story and guidance from health authorities is evolving quickly.

We are education reporters by day and parents by night (and day). But, in recent weeks, our two worlds have collided, with parents and educators equally concerned about the spread of COVID-19. So here's a quick rundown of some of the great questions we've heard from listeners and readers and the answers we've been able to explore in our reporting. For even more, you can listen to this new episode of NPR's Life Kit podcast.

Q. What's the single most important thing we can do to protect our kids?

Make sure they understand that hand-washing isn't optional. And that means showing them how to do it properly: using soap, warm water and time. Washing should take 20 seconds, which means you may need to help them find a song they can sing (in their heads, maybe twice) — like the ABCs or "Happy Birthday" songs. Be sure they wash whenever they come in from outside, before eating, after coughing or sneezing or blowing their nose and, of course, after using the bathroom.

For younger kids, it can't hurt to remind them that nose-picking is a no-go, and that they should cough into their elbows. If you're feeling ambitious, clip their fingernails frequently, as they provide a sneaky hiding spot for viruses. Hand lotion keeps skin comfy and unbroken, which also helps prevent the spread of infection.

A few more ideas: Try laundering things like coats, backpacks and reusable shopping bags more frequently and take off shoes when you come inside. For cleaning the house, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says "diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol, and most common EPA-registered household disinfectants should be effective."

Q. How do I get my kids to STOP TOUCHING THEIR FACES?

Sorry. This is one of the few questions to which we have no good answer. Because I (Cory) have not yet figured out how to stop touching my own face.

As an experiment, maybe try making them wear scratchy mittens. Or do what I (Anya) did and paint your child's face — so you can catch them red-handed, though this could also lead to unwanted faceprints on walls and windows.

Q. This health crisis can be scary. How should we talk about it with kids?

Keep it simple, age-appropriate and fact-based. For example, don't tell your child they won't get COVID-19; you don't know that. Instead, the CDC suggests telling children that, from what doctors have seen so far, most kids aren't getting very sick. In fact, most people who've gotten COVID-19 haven't gotten very sick. Only a small group have had serious problems. And, channeling the great Mr. Rogers: Look for the Helpers. Assure your kids, if they (or someone they love) do get sick, the world is full of grown-ups who will help. And be sure to check out this incredible comic by our colleague, Malaka Gharib. She made it specifically for kids who may be scared or confused about coronavirus.

Q. With racist incidents toward Asians and Asian Americans, is this a teaching moment for social justice?

Absolutely. We must remind the children in our lives that viruses can make anyone sick, regardless of a person's race or ethnicity. No matter where scientists first documented COVID-19, this outbreak isn't anyone's fault. Similarly, just because someone looks different or talks differently, doesn't mean they are at a higher risk of getting the coronavirus or spreading it. And let children know that if they hear language in school or on the playground that suggests otherwise, they should be sure to let you know.

Q. Why is/isn't my school being closed?

Closing schools is a complicated decision. Many school leaders and public health officials seem to be waiting for an infection or potential infection in their immediate school community before closing. While the science suggests closing schools earlier is more effective at slowing the spread of disease, it's important to understand why so many school leaders are so reluctant to close schools.

For one thing, parents should understand that for many kids in the United States, being sent home from school is also a public health risk. Many children may not have parents who can take off work, or work from home, if school is canceled. They may also live in unsafe neighborhoods. Millions of U.S. children rely on schools for free or reduced-price meals, too, and 1.5 million schoolchildren nationwide are housing-insecure. For many of these kids, having to miss several weeks of school could be incredibly destabilizing.

One more thing: Rest assured that the decision to close schools is not being taken lightly and is being made in conjunction with local public health officials. Emphasis on local — this decision is being made school by school, district by district.

Q. What do we do if school is canceled?

Many parents and caregivers will have to scramble for child care, especially low-wage workers who may not have vacation or sick leave. If you're not one of those parents, try to do something to help those who are. School closure can last two weeks or more; flexibility and empathy will help us all through this.

For parents who can stay home, many are wondering: What exactly is "social distancing?" Can my children still go on play dates? Or is it screen time, all the time?

The idea with closing schools is to limit the number of social contacts. That is what is going to be most effective in slowing the spread of this disease.

The guidance on this point from public health authorities is evolving quickly, and typically towards being more strict about this rather than less.

NPR spoke to Marco Ajelli and Maria Litvinova, two scholars who have published several papers on school closures in epidemics. Litvinova had this to say:

"If the school is closed for a certain amount of time, even if it's long and difficult for parents to organize the care, it's important that they do not regroup children again because the effect of the school closure will be much less."

She says new research looking at the origins of the coronavirus outbreak in Hubei Province in China, as well as her own work looking at school closures due to flu outbreaks in Russia, suggests that limiting contacts to the size of the household, plus at most one other person, is ideal.

Ajelli echoed Litvinova: "To limit contact to two to three persons per day probably is enough to stop the epidemic to spread substantially." So depending on the size of your family, that could be it.

Families across the country are getting very creative with virtual play dates using video chat as well as platforms like Roblox, which allows kids to chat while playing a video game together.

Some public health authorities have suggested that for older children who can respect social distancing, outdoor meetups in open spaces might be permissible. But this hasn't been specifically studied, our sources say.

Q. What does it mean to work from home and parent young (preschool and elementary) kids that are home as a result of school closures at the same time? Disney+ all day everyday???

Common Sense Media is a great resource for quality screen-time recommendations both free and paid, educational and purely recreational — including privacy tips. I (Anya) like Duolingo for language learning, Tynker for coding and Khan Academy for academic subjects. Epic is a subscription service with endless books and comics for tablets, searchable by age.

As we said, you can also get creative with video chat. In addition to checking in with grandparents, try setting up a remote play date for your kids. Some long-distance families stay connected with a Zoom or Google hangout portal that just stays open. Try playing hide-and-seek by carrying a laptop around the house!

Also, if school's been canceled, think about using video chat to continue learning opportunities: piano lessons, tutoring or Sunday school with your child's regular teacher. A company called Outschool does live online classes for kids.

There are even physical screen-time options. GoNoodle offers both physical dance/movement and meditation videos, and this is a great time for everyone in the family to learn TikTok dances like the Renegade.

Special note on teens and screens: Online spaces are their social spaces and it's good to respect that. Take this as an opportunity to learn more about their online worlds. Help them bust rumors and disinformation. (Check out this free online module to become an expert detector of coronavirus hoaxes.) Check in with their mental health. Be a media mentor.

Q. What about non-screen activities?

Yes! Getting outside isn't just a good idea, it's good for your physical and mental health. Go for a walk, a bike ride or, if possible, a family hike.

And here's a wild card: While everyone's home, try giving the kids more responsibility around the house, including cooking a meal or doing the laundry. And cleaning — there's going to be a lot of cleaning to do!

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.