Your Fall School Plan:
Special Expert Panel
(COVID Edition)

Regardless of your plan for the upcoming school year, you likely have questions about how to best navigate this next phase with your family.


Nicole Wallace, LCMHCA

Sara Thatcher, MSW, LCSW

Megan Werdel, BA, MA

Crissy Fishbane: We are HER Health Collective. For those of you that are new, we are grateful that you are here!  Just so you know who we are and what we stand for, HER Health Collective offers education and community for moms. We aim to be one central location where moms can come to access trusted resources, vetted experts, and also have access to a fun and supportive community. We are all about creating genuine and authentic connections between moms.


I’m going to start off by introducing Megan. Megan Werdel is a wonderful woman that I am grateful to be friends with. She is the Vice President and compliance consultant for Grey and Company. Grey and Company offer healthcare consulting and education to outpatient surgery facilities. So basically they go in and ensure that those surgery centers are compliant with all the CDC guidelines.


Cindi Michaelson: Yes, thank you. I’m Cindi Michaelson, the other half of HER Health Collective. I’d love to introduce you to Nicole Wallace. Nicole is a licensed clinical mental health counselor associate and parent coach. Nicole has worked extensively with children between the ages of 5 and 14 in her role as a school counselor and school teacher for 22 years.


The other individual I’d love to introduce is Sara Thatcher. Sara is a licensed clinical social worker, certified trauma specialist, registered play therapist supervisor, and registered yoga teacher with over 18 years of experience in the mental health field. She also specializes in play therapy for children ages birth – 12.


Crissy Fishbane: I’m going to start this off by turning to Sara. Throwing you on the spot, Sara! Sara, we would love to hear from you. For moms that are opting to keep their child at home there is a lot of concern about social effects, academic effect, emotional and mental health. We would love to hear from you how moms can navigate this? Should we be concerned? How concerned?


Sara Thatcher: Sure. I know I talked about this a little bit the last time I was on. Everybody has to make a decision that’s going to work best for their family. There are going to be some people that can’t do virtual learning, or can’t be there with their child at all times. There will be some parents that do have that ability and capacity. I think that in and of itself is important to say. There are going to be families that can’t really sustain virtual learning, or are going to struggle with virtual learning.


As parents, being able to support our kids around the fact that this is becoming a bit of a new normal. We started this back in March and it was more of a surprise for everyone. Now we have the ability to plan and we’re stepping into the school year with a little bit more knowledge and information around what we’re going to be expecting.


In terms of mental health, having a schedule is going to be really key for children. Some familiarity, some predictability, some routine. Every Monday I do this. Here is my schedule.


It’s also going to be different for very young children versus middle schoolers versus high schoolers. But having a schedule and something that is more predictable is going to be really helpful for all kids. Having certain times that they are going to be focused on their schoolwork or virtual learning and then having some personal time, quiet time or downtime is going to be really important as well. But then again, having dedicated parent-time for the parent to have the ability to process any kind of emotions that are coming up with the child.


With young children, I always encourage parents to have playtime. You know, unstructured, child-led playtime, if you can, if you have that ability and that time. Twenty to thirty minutes a day to allow the child to have that space to be able to process through play and any emotions that are coming up.


A lot of times with our very young children they’re not going to be able to sit and tell us how they’re feeling or process all of their emotions when we’re talking about a five or six-year-old. A lot of times when we try to sit down and talk with them they’re not going to want to talk about it. They’re going to feel uncomfortable. Allowing them some space and the ability when they are ready to talk about it or when they do have questions that will come up to be able to answer those and to be honest enough without giving too much information. I encourage parents not to get into the nitty-gritty, “well, all these people are dying and the hospitals are out of control.” So, not oversharing information that children can’t really handle or that is frightening for them. But giving them information about this is what we are having to do right now because this is the best thing for our family. We’re not going to have to do this forever, but this is what we’re doing for right now. Having realistic expectations for kids and having them understand that this is what we’re doing. 


I know with Wake County right now it’s kind of up in the air if there will be an in-person option or not. It sounds like there might be, so that would change things a bit. But, in terms of virtual learning, having the expectation and understanding that this is what we’re doing right now.

Everybody has to make a decision that’s going to work best for their family. There are going to be some people that can’t do virtual learning, or can’t be there with their child at all times. There will be some parents that do have that ability and capacity.

Crissy Fishbane: Thank you. We are going to turn things over to Megan now. Really this applies across the board. If we are sending a child back to school or daycare, private school, or even just the pandemic pods we’re hearing about or venturing out to stores more frequently, social-distanced playdates –  Megan, how can we protect our family to the best of our ability? How can we keep our children safe and our home safe? What are your recommendations?


Megan Werdel: Just like I told you guys last time I talked to your group, I can’t tell you what’s safe, but if you give me a scenario I can help you make it safer. There’s a lot of unknowns in this scenario which is why I think a lot of people are against going back into school. There are a lot of trials and research still underway and unknowns that we don’t have answers to. So, I can help give you an idea of what we do know now and will hopefully know soon.


I know we aren’t totally going to delve into why you make specific decisions for your family but I do want to talk about… I’m not going to tell anyone what is right for your family, but I will share a few of the factors you may want to consider when making your decision. I know Wake County is going to be online right now, at least for the first couple of weeks, then you might have the option to go in person. I personally have taken the option to go in person to send my son to preschool. I also have several friends that have opted to send their grade-school aged children to private school.


This is actually pulled from my pediatrician, Dr. Daumen at White Oak Pediatrics. I would encourage each of you to see what your pediatricians are recommending and what potential resources they’re offering for you.


The factors to consider include: is your child at an increased risk for COVID-19? Are they likely to get more sick if they get it or more likely to catch it than other children? Or is someone else in your household?


For households, a lot of the risk-factors you see are age over 60, or over 50 with co-morbidities, or any age with an immunocompromised state. This could be because of certain medications they’re on, maybe they’re receiving chemotherapy treatment, or have an underlying medical condition. For example, my dad has lupus and is on immunosuppressants and he is at an increased risk.


The CDC and the World Health Organization added pregnancy to that. We don’t have a ton of information. My sister who is an OBGYN spoke with HER Health Collective recently. The information they’re giving is that you’re not necessarily at greater risk if you get COVID-19 and are pregnant, however you may feel sicker because of the way pregnancy takes all of your nutrients, and you tend to be more tired, your immune system tends to overproduce, so you may feel sicker. However, more research needs to be done. The infants and fetuses are not that old yet for people that have been exposed to COVID-19. So the answer is we don’t fully know yet. There might be a little bit of a risk of pre-eclampsia if you’re pregnant.


So that’s talking about the risk factors for your household, if you have a multi-generational household and say your parents and your children both live in the house together. Or if you yourself are at an increased risk, that could determine your decision.


Next, you have to figure out your risk tolerance. I know a lot of you when you go to make investments you’ll sit down and fill out a questionnaire and try to figure out what your personal risk tolerance is. This is just the same. Ultimately, my family’s risk tolerance is going to be a little more tolerant of risk because my husband goes to work running youth programs every day and so we are already incurring that risk. So when we think about whether or not we are going to send our son to school it’s not as if we’ve been perfectly sheltering in place and then we’re going to introduce the only new aspect by him going to school.


How has your child handled being out of school? Just like Nicole and Sara can talk about, you know your child. You know how they’ve handled it. Have they been doing a really good job and flourishing at home? Or have they been having a harder time? My child has seen a lot of reversion when he’s been at home. We sent him to school for the socialization. He’s an only child. So, assessing what has been the outcomes for your child so far.


Then, how does your child handle change in general? If you opt to keep your child at home that may have fewer variables and less change overall then sending the child to school where the school could close, they could be sent home, you could get sick. All of these variables could change and you could have to adjust on a dime.


Do you have the ability to keep your child at home? My husband and I both work, primarily outside of the home when COVID’s not happening and more and more outside of the home now. It would be a real stretch for us to keep our child at home and might even require our child being with one of those higher-risk family members on a day-to-day basis.


Does your child receive additional services at school that are not available to them in the home? This would be things like speech therapy, occupational therapy, or other resources that they receive through school. Now for a lot of them, they’re going to try to make these available either virtually or somehow in the home, but it’s a consideration.


Do you feel like your school has the necessary resources to safely re-open? Unfortunately, public schools are a little stretched. I think as parents we all want to see what their plans are when it comes to having them in the home. Sometimes private schools have a little more resources to even be able to have the cleaning supplies in the classroom. So that’s another thing you might want to consider.


Finally, is your child willing and able to follow all the guidelines? Wearing the mask, maintaining the social distance, washing their hands as often as they need to, that’s another thing about knowing your child and if they’ll be willing to do it.


Another consideration for sending your child back in person is transportation. Anytime you can decrease the number of exposures for your child it gets incrementally safer. I’m sure they’re going to come up with a way to carpool or bus school children, however, if they are on a bus they’re going to need to maintain the social distancing and wear the mask. If they’re carpooling, say with neighbors I would still recommend wearing the mask in the car. So getting to school is another consideration.


I want to talk about the flyer that Crissy mentioned. I was reading the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations and I put a lot of the stuff into one little flyer for you guys. I was trying to make it evergreen so that if different recommendations change I didn’t give you the isolation time period and all those kinds of things, but I can definitely answer questions about that. But as there is new data a lot of times those things change. I want to give you something to hang on the fridge or put in a place so that you have your family’s plan and you have that information on hand so that if you hear your child’s school had a case or your child is showing symptoms you can grab it and not necessarily panic about what to do next.


I just want to talk to you about what this has on it real quick. There is a little spot for a reminder of the daily checks so if you’re sending your child in-person to school or I know that the Y is doing programs because my husband is running them where they’ll do the academic support while the children do school online, or if you’re sending your child outside the home in general. 


You want to take their temperature each day. A fever is considered 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit and above. Anything less than that is not considered a fever. I know it gets murky. My sister who is the physician gets so mad at me when I use the term low-grade fever because she says that’s not a thing. Especially with children, you can have a lot of variation with their temperatures. I put the other symptoms here too. Keep in mind the other symptoms can shift a little bit, but this is what the CDC is recommending screening children for currently:

  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Body Aches


The last one is important because a lot of times children don’t show symptoms. This is if they’ve had close contact with someone with COVID-19. The definition of close contact is going to change a little bit as more data comes in. Typically that’s more than 10 minutes with less than 6 feet from a person without masks. If you’re ever in doubt or wondering, call your pediatrician.  You can say we were around this person, we were outside, but we weren’t wearing masks, is that considered an exposure? Your pediatrician should be able to let you know.


The next space lets you enter that school contact information of whoever you would call if your child gets sick. So, as you go back to school and have your orientation write that information down because you’re not going to want to scramble for it if and when that time comes.


The next square is a place for you to write the COVID-19 testing sites that are close to your homes. You can get this information from the health department website, you can talk to your pediatrician about what they recommend, but I would recommend going ahead and writing down at least three sites there. If you know where you can have access to a drive-through site or place that can take care of you relatively quickly.


A lot of times hospital systems turnaround times are quicker than if you go through a private laboratory. If you ask a testing site who they send it to, places like Duke, UNC, WakeMed typically have their own laboratories. But if they’re sending them to places like LabCorp or MAACO they have tended to have longer turnaround times. So just something to keep in mind. If you’re calling somewhere and asking someone about your child that is sick you can ask them about what their turnaround time is and that is definitely something you can shop around for.


Vaccinations. We are heading into flu season. As you know, the flu and COVID-19 have a lot of overlapping symptoms and that’s going to cause a lot of confusion coming up. Make sure your child has had their flu shot. I included a place for you to write the last date of their flu shot. Go ahead and get it in the next year from that date. The CDC says we still need more information, but it could be possible that if you have the flu and COVID at the same time it causes a more severe illness. So you do want to make sure you go ahead and get the flu shot.


Finally, I have some more recommendations for an emergency plan. I travel out of town for work a lot of times and my husband is more likely to be the one that is in town, so we’ll say if my son gets sick at school or school closes abruptly my husband will be the one to go pick him up. If he’s not available we want to know who can go. Usually, that plan for me includes either my parents or my husband’s parents. But that is not what I’m going to have happen during this time since they’re all at higher risk. What I’m probably going to do is switch that out so that it would be his brother that goes and gets him because he’s not at as great of a risk. Therefore I need to make sure his brother is on the pick-up list when I send my son to school. So these are considerations to ask yourself and think through before sending your kid in person.


The last square I have is recommendations for daily routine. As Sara mentioned, routines are really important for kids. I made a couple of recommendations that before school you have them go through what they need to pack: hand sanitizer, I’m going to say send two masks with the kid in case the first one gets soiled or lost, make sure you always have their name in it, and then a water bottle because a lot of the water fountains are going to be shut down and you don’t necessarily know how often they’re going to be offered water.  Those three things, they go through their list, and then there is a daily routine for after school: wash your hands, put your face mask in the laundry and put your bottle in the dishwasher.


Let’s talk about surface transmission. There is a lot of confusion there. There was a study that talked about surface transmission and the hours that each thing lived, for instance, I think it’s four hours on cardboard; however, it did not look at fabric so we do not necessarily know on clothing. What we do know is the World Health Organization and the CDC says that there is no evidence that there has been transmission via surfaces even though they have found the spores on those surfaces. This might mean it’s not really transmitted via surfaces or it might mean that if someone is touching a surface they’ve also been in other contact with someone that’s contagious. The good news is we don’t see a prevalence of surface transmission.


If you are an overstressed parent and your kid is coming home from school and you want a pass from making them strip down and shower, you have a pass from me to not make them strip down and take a shower because they have really de-emphasized the surface transmission from the World Health Organization and the CDC.


I’m always happy to answer additional questions. Just a little information about why I do what I do. I have two degrees in economics and originally worked in trade law. I really like to help people make actionable plans based on a lot of literature, whether that be rule books, recommendations, etc. That’s what I do. After graduate school, I joined the family business where we do healthcare consulting and it was just a different rule book. Since March I’ve been helping healthcare organizations and small businesses of all sizes and types, including some child care organizations, come up with their plan for how they’re going to respond to COVID-19. Ever since Crissy first approached me about it I’ve been really excited about helping families come up with their plan as well. What I specialize in is reading those CDC and World Health Organization journal articles and helping you guys make an actionable plan.

I know a lot of making sure my son feels safe is managing my own anxiety and emotions about it, so making the decision and being at peace with it myself is most important. If I’m anxious about it, he’s going to be anxious about it.

Crissy Fishbane: Thank you so much, Megan. As always you are a wealth of knowledge and we appreciate it. I’m very excited to turn it to Nicole now. We would love to hear how we can deal with our own anxieties. When frustration emerges because our child is having temper tantrums, or is frustrated at virtual learning, or has fears about going into the classroom with masks everywhere, how can we best help our child deal with that and ourselves? I think we will all acknowledge that this is a tough phase of life.


Nicole Wallace: Yes, I think that is a great question because you are going to experience a lot of anxiety with whichever decision you make. A lot of what Sara talked about putting in place for kids can also work for us. Structure. Keeping a structured day. Some of us might be working from home more than we had planned. Going back now and looking at how you did remote learning at the end of this last school year and now. It’s going to look very different based on what we’re being told by Wake County Public School Systems. There are going to be some more demands so make sure you’re reading up on all that material so you can structure your day in a way that will work for your family.


Also recognizing that it’s okay to have those negative emotions. A lot of times we try to suppress negative emotions or hide them from our children, and one of the things Sara mentioned is that it’s okay to say “it’s okay that we are having this feeling. This will pass.”


Riding out those negative feelings and one of the ways to do that is taking care of yourself as a parent. Make sure you are getting your daily 10-minute walk or hour-long walk, whatever you can do. Make sure you are keeping your favorite tea or glass of wine if that’s your thing, make sure you’re keeping connected with your friends. Make sure you are scheduling time to do things, even if it’s just 10-15 minutes a day. That can be a great mood booster for everybody. When you’re in a good, centered place that’s the best way to deal with our children, especially when they snap or have an emotional breakdown.


I don’t know if any of you have seen the video that’s gone viral of a teen girl in her room before she starts school. She looks around her room and reflects on all the memories of school, the trophies, the friends. Then the video speeds up and she goes into a breakdown, then it ends. The whole time I was watching the video I kept thinking “where’s the intervention? Where is the parent in this?”


We have to be on the job. Doing little things to help ourselves even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes a day.


Also, I found it helpful the last time we did the remote learning to have some systematic things in place, so it’s not just the structure part of the day. So I made a tab on all of our laptops of resources like or All of the things I found we were consistently having to do because I found I was having to be more engaged. I already feel like I was a present parent, I have a fifth-grader, and a third-grader, and a high schooler so I needed to have some resources on hand when I was asked a direct question about some of this stuff. It was stressful if I had to go googling everything.


I also heard mentioned having discussions with your kids. That can also calm you down. Really understanding where they are coming from and not just guessing. I heard Sara mention about age-appropriateness, that’s always good as well. Asking those open-ended questions and that way you’re not giving a whole bunch of information or feeling like you have to have all the answers, but instead really hearing their thoughts.


The things I found on Amazon are these little conversation cubes and they come in emojis, but they also come with words for the older kids. A lot of therapists use them but I think families can use them, having a family meeting, making sure you’re in touch with your spouse or partner if you have one in the home so that you’re not doing everything yourself. I think a lot of times, especially as moms, well it’s my obligation to help with the schooling and I have to get dinner and I have to get the schedule right. A lot of families balance that well and both partners help with that. If it has been uneven for you in the past maybe having some discussions around how there can be more equity around those things.


One of the things about being home is that there are a lot of great teachable moments with our children. The younger ones that didn’t know how to do laundry, we’re having a lot of discussions now about how this isn’t just my job, now you can learn how to sort and fold. It takes some of the stress off of me and I’m teaching a life skill as well. After every meal, you don’t always have to be the one doing all the clean-up. Engage them, it’s a great way to build those relationships as well as build life skills as well as take some of the pressure off of you.


Being there for your little people really requires you to be there for yourself first.


Crissy Fishbane: Thank you so much, Nicole. I definitely want to leave enough time for questions. If anyone has a question feel free to hop off mute to ask or you can use the chat feature.


Cindi Michaelson: I think I’ll get you all started. This is going to be directed to Nicole. Once a parent has made a decision how do we let go of the guilt or worry, as much as possible of course, and put their focus on making the best of the situation?


Nicole Wallace: Well, I think one of the things is to recognize that those negative emotions are going to come up. Just being able to recognize that it’s okay to have those negative emotions.


Self-compassion is huge when you’re a parent. There are going to be a lot of things that come up that may make you feel guilty or second-guess yourself. With this pandemic, there is no book. We are all learning together. Give yourself permission to feel the worry. Give yourself permission to feel alright. Trust that you made an educated decision. I think most of us are reading whatever we can that comes out, we are in this forum right here. The fact that you’re here shows that you’re interested, you’re engaged, you’re looking for answers. Know that whatever choice you made you did it from a place of love and you did it from a well-informed process.


Then maybe finding some support people who are in your corner and can continue to give you some encouragement. Some like-minded folks who love on you and give you time to experience those feelings and second-guess yourself. Whether it be a spouse, a friend, or a family member.

Crissy Fishbane: Sara, or really any of our three panelists, do you have recommendations on helping kids be comfortable with things like wearing a mask?


Sara Thatcher: Kind of like Nicole said, there is no real protocol here. I think authenticity is going to be the biggest factor I’d encourage. I have a six-year-old and he’s wearing a mask. I acknowledge to him, “I know. It feels kind of strange.” He commented to me recently that it felt hot with the mask on. I said, “Yes, it is! I know. It’s frustrating. It’s hot for me too. I get sweaty too.”


So part of it, for me at least, is acknowledging that there are going to be things that we have to do during this pandemic that we don’t love. I think sharing that we’re going through it too is validating to children. I think saying something like “no it’s not” will invalidate their experience. I would encourage parents to validate and acknowledge your experience as a parent too. Sharing how this is strange for us too.


We have never been through a pandemic. We’ve never had to wear masks when we were children. We are learning along with our children. While I think we can be secure bases for our children and help them to not be afraid of things, it’s helpful to share that we are learning too. We can share that we don’t have all the answers, nobody does. We are right there with them. We don’t need to overshare or get into the droplets in the air and that’s why we’re wearing the mask, especially with younger children. Being really simplistic about it.


We got my kid a fun space mask. “Yay! You’ve got a mask. I’ve got a mask.” Sharing with them and being authentic about this experience with them is going to go a long way towards normalizing and validating that we’re all going through this.


Megan Werdel: Yes. I’d love to add on. I’m one of those crazy people that started a side-hustle during this. I sell masks. I’ve made about 650 of them. I’m a little swamped right now so I’m not trying to sell my masks to you! But, giving the kids some agency in picking the patterns and then picking the mask in the morning. My son as a Paw Patrol and a Lighting McQueen mask that is double-sided and he can pick which Lightning McQueen pattern.


My niece is 11 and is starting middle school. She told me the other day all she wanted was a normal first day of sixth grade.  She picked out her flamingo backpack a month ago and asked if we go back to school in person will you make me a flamingo mask. So, I am. Masks can be fun, you guys. There are tons of options out there. I know it can feel like you’re dumping time and money into finding the right fit for kids, but there are a lot of people out there making masks that are good for kids.


I’d say look for the nose bridge. Some people are making ones that attach behind the head but be careful with those because they tend to slip. Personally, my son does really well with one that has the round elastic that goes behind the ears versus what I use for adults that has flat elastic. Kids ears are very bendy, so something that has thicker elastic is not going to work as well for kids especially for longer periods of time.  So that’s something I’d say to look for in masks for kids.


Cindi Michaelson: That’s so helpful! Who knew? I’m going to propose a question and any of you can jump in to answer the question I’m about to ask. So, the direction schools are going right now is providing the choice essentially. You can choose to send them back to school, you can choose to keep them at home. How do we talk to our children in order to prepare them for the decision we feel is best for our family, mainly when the parents of their friends may have chosen differently. If their friends are going back to school and we choose to keep our children at home, how do we tackle that?


Sara Thatcher: I think for this particular situation having some confidence. Once we parents get to the decision we are going to make having that as a confident statement to children. So especially for children under 10, not wavering, not saying “we’re not really sure. What do you think?” I wouldn’t necessarily give that decision making power to the child. Once you make the decision to be really confident and sure in the decision and to communicate that in a way that is really confident and secure.


The more confident and securely we can communicate to our children the more they will feel secure about the decision.


In terms of other children, we kind of handle this similarly with things like t.v., video games, whatever. So and so down the street may go to bed two hours later than we do, they might do this and that differently than we do. This is just a decision that we’ve made and it’s different. There are going to be times that they are really disappointed with the decision, whatever that is, whether it’s virtual or in-person.


Acknowledging that that is going to happen. They are going to be disappointed. That’s kind of the nature of childhood in some ways especially when we have to make decisions for our children. As long as we as parents are able to communicate that in a way that is confident and secure. We’ve made this decision because we feel it’s in the best interest of you, and we know you, and we are your parents, and we make those decisions. In a loving way, but I think the more confident we can be in this decision the more confident our child will feel. The reality is there are always going to be times when their friends or kids down the street are doing different things that we don’t necessarily do, or have different values. That’s a conversation we have to navigate in a lot of different areas as parents. This is another one of those areas. This is the best decision for our family and we are your parents.


Nicole Wallace: I guess the only thing I would follow up with would be exploring why that question even arose. Why your child would even question? Would they come to you with the comparison between video games and bedtimes? “So, you’re missing so and so? What is it you think you’re going to miss out on?” Asking some of those open-ended questions because it might be that your child is using that question to express whatever negative emotions or some feelings of sadness or missing out on something is in there. That might be a gateway into that conversation.


Megan Werdel: I’ll just speak from a pre-k perspective. Thankfully my four-year-old’s view of the world is mostly just our family, especially nowadays. I know a lot of making sure he feels safe is managing my own anxiety and emotions about it, so making the decision and being at peace with it myself is most important. If I’m anxious about it, he’s going to be anxious about it.


Crissy Fishbane: Megan I have a quick mask question for you. I feel like I’ve seen mixed things and organizations are going with different protocols. At what age should a kid start wearing a mask? And when we are outside and socially distanced is it still a good idea?


Megan Werdel: Okay. So the CDC says two and up as long as they are able to remove it themselves and they don’t wear it when they are sleeping. So if you have a two-year-old that falls asleep in the car seat, take it off. Or the stroller if you’re out and about. Outdoors if you’re able to safely social distance it’s not necessarily required. I know the governor’s statement kind of made it seem like unless you’re exercising outdoors that you should wear a mask, but the CDC recommends when you’re indoors, or outside and it’s difficult to socially distance, that anyone two and up wear a mask as long as they’re able to remove it themselves. I have a four-year-old and although it’s not currently legally required I do put a mask on him.

Self-compassion is huge when you’re a parent. There are going to be a lot of things that come up that may make you feel guilty or second-guess yourself. With this pandemic, there is no book. We are all learning together.

Cindi Michaelson: Nicole, I can tell you that with virtual learning it was very difficult for us. Our kids had a tendency to break down. I have ten and seven-year-old girls and they would break down regularly. As a parent, if we decide that virtual learning is right for our family in terms of safety, but we know that it might not be the best in terms of how they do online learning, how do we manage that as a parent? How do we work through those breakdowns?


Nicole Wallace: I think one of the things you can do is reassure them that you will be trying to find outlets for them that are outside of what their regular school situation is, of course within guidelines. This new normal, some of us have started weekly zoom playdates and things like that. Those are becoming some of our new normal. Making sure they are engaging with their friends at some level and having that support for them. Also, taking the time to recognize their feelings. Sara talked about validating their feelings and recognizing that yes if we do have this schedule it does help us get through our day, but just like us they might need a mental health moment. They might just need to log off for a moment that morning, maybe they don’t complete all the assignments. So keeping engaged with your teachers of course if you choose to do that.


I know I had one day where my third grader was sitting at the computer and I could just visibly see her frustration building over trying to work out something. So I said, you know what we are just going to send the teacher a little note and now we are going to go do something much more relaxing and in line with your personality for a little while because this is not how you’ve been learning. Recognizing that you might need some time to make that transition and to relax and get away from the screen for a little while. Staring at that screen can be intimidating at times and can also trigger some frustration.


The other thing I would say is really looking at maybe finding some professional help if it’s ongoing. We do have to engage our resources. We are in the middle of a crisis, seeking help is not something to be ashamed of. You should recognize that you’re paying for benefits if you’ve got insurance then you’re paying for that already. Your children should have some form of healthcare for them, school counselors, school psychologists, there’s a whole team of people waiting to assist you. Work through that system, both within your school and outside of your school. You can find a licensed counselor for you to talk to or for your child to talk to. There are all different forms of therapy, you have to find the one that works for your child. That could be play, direct conversation, there’s telehealth now, many insurance companies are covering you being able to talk to a licensed professional so don’t shy away from seeking help.


Crissy Fishbane: We’ve had a few questions come in from participants. Sara – and this may have been touched on a bit already – as a child therapist can you talk about the stress and anxiety level of virtual school versus in-person school for kids?


Sara Thatcher: Sure. I think again, everybody has to make their own decision, you know unless we get a decision made for us in which case it might be a little easier.


I think one of the things to be aware of with in-person learning right now is the stress and anxiety that is going to occur as a result of having to do all of these things we are talking about, the temperature checking, the masks, the social distancing, the washing of the hands, and hand sanitizer. All of it is very necessary right now, but I think it could be extremely stressful for children to have to experience that on a daily basis. As parents, it can be extremely stressful to have our children go into an environment knowing that there is this risk involved. Additionally, should a child or teacher get sick, which may happen, and the child was maybe potentially exposed or knows someone who’s been exposed, or there needs to be a quarantine, I think all of those things could be extremely stressful to a young child.


Bearing that in mind as we enter this new phase we are getting ready to go into, starting school in the midst of a pandemic, keeping that awareness and being able to monitor and look for increases in anxiety, worry, and stress level in a child. That can look very different based on the child.


We also want to monitor as Nicole said our stress level as parents. Our children are going to be directly linked to our own stress levels. If we are feeling a heightened level of anxiety every time our child leaves or comes back, and we are completely hyper-vigilant around them, all of that is going to impact a young child. Middle schoolers, teenagers I think can deal with that on a much better emotional level than a young child who is really having to experience whatever their parent is experiencing. Their level of anxiety and worry is going to be directly affected by the parent. If we have the ability to not feel as stressed or show that to our children as much, then I think that could be a good option. So also being aware when you make this decision of how it’s going to affect you personally and if that could potentially impact your child.


There is no good answer. Virtual learning will also have a lot of stressors, but I think the anxiety level of all of the things children are going to need to do when children go back to school will definitely impact most children. I think any children that are prone to being anxious will have a difficult time.


Megan Werdel: Can I add in that certain ages will feel a lack of anxiety about certain things. I’m looking at teenagers and young adults and so sometimes a parent’s job is to instill a little more anxiety in them until that frontal lobe is developed.  One of my friends, her daughter just graduated high school from a Wake County school, and her daughter has had COVID is fully recovered. Nine of her friends have COVID right now because they all went to a party together. So we are talking about school and keeping children out of school and sometimes parents have to make tough decisions. Keep your teenagers from going to parties together. That’s my two sense.


Cindi Michaelson: There is another question in the comments that we’d like to get to. What should the expectation be for the amount of time a child can expect to stay focused on learning via a screen and how does this vary by age? I think this is a great question mainly because we’ve talked about putting routines together. So how much time should we be building in those routines in terms of our expectations?


Sara Thatcher: What I’ll say in terms of screen time and children is it depends on the child and it depends on the age. Under the age of five, I would say it’s going to be very difficult to have any kind of long-term learning via a virtual platform. You’re talking 45-minutes if you’re under five. I think for the kindergarten through third-grade ages we need to be really realistic. Honestly, every child is going to be different. There will be some children that can spend hours in front of the computer screen. My son who is six and does not have any kind of attention issues would not do well sitting in front of a screen for more than say 45-minutes to an hour. He would need some definite breaks within that time frame.


I want to just put this out there for parents to take with them, you’re going to be told that they need to do a lot of things for virtual learning. The most important thing as parents is that we are monitoring our children’s mental health. There are going to be a lot of requirements and assignments, there’s going to be a lot of asks from well-meaning people and I think the most important thing is for parents to monitor their emotional well-being. If something is becoming overwhelming, if it is becoming a screaming match or a crying situation, I would listen more to your child than to what they have to do academically in terms of a virtual learning situation.


Your stress level and their stress level is going to be a really big part of this equation. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and they’re feeling overwhelmed give it a break. I wouldn’t push them past their breaking point. The top concern should be their emotional well-being. The second concern should certainly be their academic learning, but I think in this particular situation because it is so different and strange and stressful I think we want to have their emotional well-being at the top. I know that may be an unpopular opinion. I think regardless of what you’re hearing from the academic side their emotional well-being in the midst of a pandemic, in my opinion, is more important than what grade they got or if they completed an assignment.


Nicole Wallace: I think also when you’re thinking about screen time as we go into this next phase of remote learning to also consider television time as well as free time on the X-Box or whatever video game they’re playing if that’s one of their outlets. We should be really mindful that if maybe your third grader has spent two hours on the computer doing virtual learning that the best choice after that shouldn’t be getting on the X-Box or watching his or her favorite show.


Maybe it should be a moment where you go out and walk around, sit on the deck, or ride your bike. Even for your high schoolers, I know I have one and she could up there and sit home all day and go from her class assignments to binge-watching Netflix. I have to make sure I’m really engaging her and reminding her there is a world outside of her room.


I would just remind you that screen time comes in many different forms and not just with what the school is assigning but also with what they are choosing as relaxation activities.

Crissy Fishbane: I feel like I have those screen time issues too, going from work and then zoom and then I binge-watch Netflix. So thank you for reminding us to be mindful of that! I do want to be mindful of everybody’s time, but there was one last question: do you have any suggestions for trying to teach a kindergartner from home?


Sara Thatcher: Let me just clarify, would this be through a virtual learning environment or is this totally separate from virtual learning and just a homeschooling type of thing?


Participant: This would be virtual learning.


Sara Thatcher: Yes, so my son did virtual learning the last couple of months last year for kindergarten and again, with this particular age range I think the most important thing is going to be their emotional well-being. Initially, for my son, he thought it was really cool that he got to see all of his classmates on zoom calls and got to do all this fun stuff and it was really exciting for about three or four weeks, after that he was done. It became a bit of a battle.


For me, as a parent and a mental health professional, I had to look at the fact that he’s in kindergarten. Yes, there are some basic skills he really needs to learn and things I would’ve really liked him to get in person for his last couple of months, but that factor is not going to weigh heavier for me than for his emotional well-being at this point. If he’s crying every time we turn on the zoom, if he has to complete an assignment for kindergarten and it’s becoming a complete breakdown, no that’s not going to take priority.


What I found is, the more I backed off on some of these things that seemed so important the more he was able to go with the flow and the easier it became. What we were dealing with back in March, and April, and even May a little bit was that everything was so sudden and nobody knew what was going on and everybody was so stressed out. I think it’s going to be a little bit better now in that we have some predictability, some more information, some knowledge of what’s going on, whereas initially when we all first went into lockdown everybody was just kind of terrified and the news was telling us it was dangerous to step outside. We need to be mindful of what our children are experiencing. If this virtual learning is becoming emotionally taxing in some way I think we need to be responsive to that first and foremost.


In terms of specific teaching methods, I’m not sure if that’s what you’re asking as well, but I would say anything that’s more experiential for children is going to be so meaningful. Anything that gets them engaged with sensory things, tools, or places you can go where you can see some of these things like parks. That versus worksheets and memorization or things like that.


For this particular age, anything play-based, sensory-based is going to really go a lot further than cognitive-based reading, writing. Now don’t get me wrong, those things are important, but I think for their enjoyment and their engagement at this age, play-based… a lot of the things we did at the end of kindergarten were things like making a model out of paper, playdoh, anything you can do that‘s sensory-related and play-based to make it fun.

Cindi Michaelson: Thank you! We want to be respectful of everybody’s time. Crissy and I would love to extend a huge thank you to Sara, Nicole, and Megan for taking the time to sit down with all of this. Your brilliant minds have been so helpful.

Special Expert Panel (COVID Edition). The featured experts:

  • Megan Werdel, Vice President and Compliance Consultant for Grey & Company, Inc. Grey & Company offers healthcare consulting and education to outpatient surgery facilities ensuring they are compliant with all guidelines. Megan will share safety precautions you can take and measures you can put in place to keep your family healthy and safe, whether sending kids back to school, or simply venturing out to public places more frequently.
  • Sara Thatcher, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Trauma Specialist, Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor and Registered Yoga Teacher, with over 18 years of experience in the mental health field, specializing in Play Therapy for children aged birth-12, talk therapy/creative expression with tweens/teens and parent support/coaching. Sara will speak about how to best support children in the transition back to school and protecting their mental health if continuing to keep them at home.
  • Nicole Wallace, a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Associate and Parent Coach. Nicole has worked extensively with children between the ages of 5 and 14 in her role as a school counselor and school teacher for 22 years. Nicole will focus on what parents can do to best support their children through the upcoming school year.

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