As summer slowly winds down and the fall season prepares to make her grand entrance, parents and children agree that back-to-school time looks and feels very different this year.

“Virtually every school is going to have some sort of digital learning component, but also it may shift during the year,” said pediatrician and Harvard professor Dr. Michael Rich, founder and leader of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Many other countries who started school already, they had hybrid systems, and very quickly showed a spike and then moved to all-digital. So we should be ready to do it, but also ready to be nimble in shifting modes.”

So, how can parents prepare students for such a unique school year of hybrid or all-digital learning? Here are five tips from Dr. Rich:

Follow a schedule

It’s impossible to completely recreate a traditional school day at home, but one helpful thing that parents can do is help their students maintain a similar schedule.

“All of us are totally burned out on screens. The kids, too, are going to get burned out. So we have to structure the day so that it reflects a normal school day,” Dr. Rich advised. “Students should be getting up a reasonable hour, getting a decent breakfast, and then going to their workspace at a designated time.”

Additionally, parents should allow students to take brief breaks between subjects to get a snack, use the restroom, get fresh air, and stretch their legs.

Prepare ahead of time

“Have a place where they can access their device and also a place on the side where they can have paper, a notebook, pens, markers, and everything they need so that they’re not constantly jumping around to do things,” Dr. Rich went on. “Good digital learning is not just screen-motivated.”

Work side-by-side

Seeing a parent working remotely can serve as a model as students learn to navigate the digital school day, so consider making your child your office mate.

“A lot of parents who have to work from home have successfully set up space next to or across from them on a table so that you’re in a space where there is dedicated working going on,” he went on. “The parents can be there to support and encourage the kid, but perhaps, more importantly, to be a role model. To show them what it looks like to be focused on the screen and do the work, but also to step outside of the screen and do the other kinds of work that need to be done.”

Monitor tech use during the school day

“Use the gallery views and kill the self-view,” Dr. Rich recommended for helping students to focus on learning during virtual class meetings. “Seeing themselves makes kids self-conscious, but you also have kids who are natural performers. They’re going to use the opportunity to have a class-long selfie. Those are little things you can do.”

Additionally, you’ll want to keep an eye out for misuse of technology during school hours.

“Monitor for the temptation of opening multiple windows or having another screen available,” said Dr. Rich. “Even though we’re convinced that we’re so great at multitasking, the human brain is incapable of multitasking. What we’re doing is rapid switch-tasking. What ends up happening is that even though you can touch on many more things, we’re kind of skating over them.”

Look for opportunities for safe socialization

While traditional playdates — especially those that take place indoors —present the risk of infection, there are other creative and low-risk ways that parents can create opportunities for socialization with peers.

“Kids miss their friends, that’s one of the biggest losses of this huge timeout. For students who go to neighborhood schools, allow walking to school if you can,” Dr. Rich advised. “First, because a bunch of kids crammed together in a bus isn’t a great way to keep from getting infected, but also it can be helpful to have walking pods. A group of kids from one block can together and one parent will walk them to school. It’s the perfect time to shoot the breeze and catch up. To have some social time.”

Additionally, there are other activities that kids can do together outdoors that pose less of a risk than other activities.

“A lot of kids are riding bikes together,” adds Dr. Rich. “Kids had given up riding bikes, but this is one way they can be physical and do things together but have a low risk of infection.”

This back-to-school season will look very different for most parents and students. It’s natural to feel anxious and even overwhelmed at times. However, Dr. Rich and his team at the Center on Media Child Health can assist you. For one, they’ve put together this helpful back-to-school guide. However, they’re also ready and willing to answer any questions that you may have.

“Reach out to us with any questions that are not in that basic back-to-school overview,” said Dr. Rich. “We have a team on standby ready to respond to that with what the science shows the best choice will be.”


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