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What parents need to know about back to school in 2021

Nicole Villalpando
Austin American-Statesman

This year, back to school comes with its own set of wrinkles and worries. School districts announced in the spring that everyone needed to go back in-person this fall and that virtual learning would end. Then COVID-19 rates of infections and hospitalizations spiked in July because of the Delta variant. Austin went from Stage 1, the lowest level, to Stage 4, the second to highest level, within weeks.

Now some districts will offer some virtual learning options by using COVID-19 relief funds to offset the cost, or will open up more homebound services to kids who are considered medically fragile. 

Masking recommendations also have changed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that everyone, vaccinated or unvaccinated, wear masks indoors, which includes schools. Schools in Texas, though, cannot mandate masks because of executive orders from Gov. Greg Abbott. 

COVID-19 in Austin: With COVID cases spiking, only 16 ICU beds available in region, Austin health officials warn

Students will be back at Vandegrift High School on Aug. 12. Last school year high schools had the smallest percentage of students going to school in-person, but this year most students will be required to be back in-person.

How should parents and students prepare for this year, which is already starting with uncertainty?

We put together this guide by asking principals, doctors and child therapists about what parents can do to be well-prepared while planning for change.

More:COVID resurgence complicates in-person events for UT-Austin, ACC students

Check for policy updates with your school

Are you getting emails from your school and your district? If not, call your school to see how you can start receiving them.

Go to the websites of your schools and your district to see what their latest COVID-19 updates are. Most districts have a whole tab that outlines what the current COVID-19 protocols will be and what students' learning options are.

Check emails and websites often, because procedures are rapidly changing.

Most school districts will not do temperatures checks at the door but are asking parents to check kids' temperature before dropping them off or putting them on a bus each morning. Some of the physical distancing that was possible last year because of limited in-person enrollment won't be possible this year. Most districts are continuing hand-sanitizing stations. 

Can my child try virtual learning?

Many districts are limiting who can use the virtual learning option or have deadlines for enrolling. Most of them require enrollment not in your current school, but instead in a virtual school that is being set up. Schools are not asking teachers to teach kids in-person and at home simultaneously. Instead, designated teachers will teach kids enrolled in virtual school.

If you enroll in virtual school, most districts allow you to switch back to your homeschool during the semester.

Every district is different, so carefully read your district's website and email or call your district or school to get specific questions answered. 

Virtual school?:Austin schools to offer virtual learning. Here's why and who is eligible

Students at Carpenter Hill Elementary School in Buda will be back in school on Aug. 19. The Hays school district has a plan for kids who are medically fragile to attend school virtually.

Get ready to re-enter the building

Many students have not been in a school building since March 2020. That's almost a year and a half of not being used to being around other kids, knowing how to follow classroom rules like raising your hand to go to the bathroom, or the routine of getting dressed, leaving the house and being present for a full school day. 

Many schools offer events that preview the school such as a "Meet the Teacher" night or a camp for new to-that-school students. If you missed those events or there isn't one scheduled, call the school and ask if your child can come into the building to walk the halls and see where everything is located. On the first day of school, it won't feel so new or scary if they've already been there.

More:COVID's return sends Central Texas schools scrambling to add remote learning options

Most high school students haven't been back in school for a year-and-a-half, but will be back this school year. Prepare kids by walking the halls before school starts and going to busier places ahead of time to get used to crowds again.

Return to a routine

Talk through with your child what the school-day routine will be like: What time do they need to get up, what will they have for breakfast, what time do they need to leave for school, how will they get there, what is the class schedule, what will happen after school, and what will the evening look like.

Practice the morning routine by starting to wake up early again. Then practice walking to the bus stop or driving to school at least once before the first day. 

Adjust the night routine by setting bedtimes back a little bit at a time until you're back on a school schedule.

Prekindergarten teacher Amanda Bradley plays with her students on Oct. 15 at Overton Elementary School in Austin. Austin ISD begins Aug. 17, and a virtual option is available for kids kindergarten through sixth grade or who are medically fragile.

School supplies and study spaces

Start thinking about school again. Gather the school supplies you will need for both at school and at home. Tax-free weekend is Aug. 6-8, when most school supplies will be tax-free. For elementary school students, check the school website for what supplies kids need by grade.

For middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, check the school website, but also stock up on things you know kids will need such as notebook paper, pencils, pens, folders and three-ring binders. You can ask a friend or neighbor with an older student what they needed if this is your child's first time in that school. Each teacher will have their own list of special requests that you'll need to get once you've met that teacher.

Second-grader Jenna Babb, 8, works with a tablet in May at Carpenter Hill Elementary School in Buda. For kids who were not in-person last year, help prepare them for the longer in-person school days by getting them into a routine and talking with them about what to expect.

Start setting up a study space in your home, even if your child will go to school in-person. Where is a quiet space where a student can take out school materials each day? It could be a desk in a bedroom or living room, or the kitchen or dining room table. If space is limited, it could be a TV tray at the living room couch. Use a bin for each kid to store things they will need if their space needs to be one that you can break down each day.

Start reading again. If kids have been spending all summer in front of screens, pick up a book or load one onto an e-reader or tablet to start using that skill again. Get in math-mode again by loading up math games or looking at sites like Khan Academy.

Fourth-graders Emma Martin, left, and Alyce Calvert, both 9, work together in May in the hallway at Carpenter Hill Elementary School in Buda. Prepare for the hallways to be much more crowded this school year.

Help kids prepare emotionally for back to school

Start talking about school in positive ways. Kids sense our emotions and feed off of them. If parents are expressing worry, their kids will feel that.

Put on a happy, yet realistic face. Talk about all the things your kids have missed out on while they've been virtual, including friends, being able to ask a teacher a question in-person, lunchtime, recess, and after-school activities and clubs.

Ask kids what they think about returning to school without trying to lead them. What questions do they have? Together, you can search the school and district websites for the answers. You also can reach out to the school and ask those questions.

Start reconnecting with school friends before school starts. Consider scheduling a Zoom call or an in-person playdate if you're comfortable. Can they arrange to walk or ride to school together that first day or plan for something fun after school to look forward to?

First-graders play during recess in May at Carpenter Hill Elementary School in Buda. Talk to your kids about whether you expect them to wear masks and during what part of the day before the first day of school begins.

Talk through masks with them

Masks cannot be mandated but are recommended indoors by local pediatricians, the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Austin Public Health even for the kids ages 12 and older who have been vaccinated for COVID-19

Talk to your kids about what your expectations are. Talk to them about the possibility that other kids in their class might or might not be doing the same thing they are doing. During summer school sessions (when masks could no longer be mandated), schools saw fewer and fewer masks as the sessions continued. Prepare your child for that possibility if you expect them to wear a mask.

Kristyn Marek helps kindergartner Henry Monaghan, 5, at Carpenter Hill Elementary School in Buda last year. Returning to school means one-on-one in-person interaction with a teacher again.

Some districts have a form you can fill out if you expect your child to wear a mask during school. Teachers then will know which kids' parents expect their child to be wearing a mask and can help remind them or alert parents if they see that child not wearing a mask.

School officials are aware that students come from homes with different stances on wearing masks. Expect messaging around that, and a heightened sense of the potential for bullying around this issue.

Art teacher Lindsey Autry leads a class at Carpenter Hill Elementary School in Buda. In talking up going back to school in person, parents can mention that classes like art will be more accessible this year.

Prepare for a healthy year

Now is the time to catch up on non-COVID-19 vaccines, have a plan for the flu shot when it's available, get the annual visit to the pediatrician done and any sports physical needed for older kids.

If your child is 12 and older and has not been vaccinated for COVID-19, start that process now. Look for pharmacy locations that have the Pfizer vaccine, which is the only one with emergency use authorization by the FDA for kids 12-17. School districts also are holding vaccination events for both COVID-19 and other vaccines. 

Stock up on hand-sanitizers/wipes for backpacks and talk to kids about when they might need to use them, such as before and after eating, when touching things that a lot of people have touched, or before and after recess.

Remind them to cough or sneeze into their elbows, not their hands, and practice that.

Set up a plan for if your child is out sick or needs to quarantine. Who will stay at home with your child? What work arrangements can be made? Read your school district's policy around what happens when a child has been exposed to COVID-19 or has a positive diagnosis or a fever. These are ever-evolving, but most districts are not planning to move students, classes or schools back to virtual if there is a case or cases.

Because of virtual school last year, most high school teachers now have a library of recorded video lessons that kids can watch to catch up if they have to miss an extended period of school.

Deep Wood Elementary students in the Round Rock school district social distanced and and wore masks in the most recent school year. Masks now are optional in schools based on a Gov. Greg Abbott order, and with more students in-person, social distancing will not be the same.

Don't expect a return to before COVID-19 school

Schools are planning a slow re-entry into academics. Educators recognize that heading straight into trying to get kids caught up academically is a recipe for disaster when kids are not used to being in a school setting, with this many people or the rigor of an eight-hour day.

The first few weeks, students should expect a lot more work on social emotional learning and rebuilding bonds between students than in previous years.

COVID-19 restrictions also created new traditions that might continue. One elementary school had a Halloween parade instead of class parties in 2020 and expects to do it again this year. High schools held graduation car parades that will continue. Principals also learned about the success of reaching parents through virtual coffees instead of asking parents to come to school for each event.

First-graders line up for recess at Carpenter Hill Elementary School in Buda in May. If your child is anxious about returning to school this year, start talking to the school about what can be done if they have a difficult day.

Prepare for anxiety

Schools are preparing for more student anxiety this year and working through scenarios about what to do with kids who have trouble leaving the car or moving from class to class.

Kids might have trouble adjusting to the crowds of school after a year of not being around a lot of people at once. Often schools allow kids to leave a class early or later to get to their next class or to have a pass to go see the counselor or go to a cool-down room. They might even set up a special place in the classroom for kids with anxiety to sit based on their preferences.

If you know your kid is anxious about returning, talk to your school counselor now. Once you know what teachers your child has, begin the communication around that anxiety. 

If your child has a 504 plan or is in special education, make sure those plans are all in place. 

Practice anxiety-reducing skills such as deep breathing; visually finding five objects that are all the same color or start with the same letter to slow down their breathing; or putting negative thoughts in an imaginary bubble and shooting imaginary arrows through them. 

Prepare items that will help. Some kids benefit from an object to give them a boost of courage, such as a baggy with hand-sanitizer, a fidget toy, a squeeze toy or a special stone to rub. Find what that thing is for your child. 

Check in with your kids once school starts about how they are feeling, without trying to be leading. 

While it's normal to be very tired the first few weeks of school, look for exhaustion that doesn't go away, increased irritability, changes in sleep and appetite, nightmares and isolation as signs that you need to get your child help for anxiety or depression. Talk to your child's teachers and counselor to see if they are noticing the same things at school.

Sources: Dr. Stanley Spinner, vice president and chief medical officer, Texas Children's Pediatrics and Texas Children's Urgent Care; Grichell Pelizzari, licensed marriage and family therapist, Thriveworks; Zakiyyah Kareem, chief student support officer, Breakthrough Central Texas; principals Cheryl Hester, Voigt Arts Integration Academy; Sam Soto, Bluebonnet Elementary School; Lynda Garinger, Hopewell Middle School; Anthony Watson, Stony Point High School; and Mario Acosta, Westwood High School.

What’s tax-free this weekend?

School supplies: Binders; backpacks and book bags; calculators; cellophane tape; blackboard chalk; compasses; composition books; crayons; erasers; folders — expandable, pocket, plastic and manila; glue; highlighters; index cards; index card boxes; legal pads; lunchboxes; markers (including dry-erase markers); notebooks; paper; pencil boxes and other school supply boxes; pencil sharpeners; pencils; pens; protractors; rulers; scissors; writing tablets.

Clothing: Most clothing; socks; most shoes; ties; coats; pajamas; swimsuits; uniforms; underwear; sports jerseys; sports hats.

Facemasks: Both cloth and disposable.

Others: Adult and baby diapers.

Online/In-store: These qualifying items can be tax-free whether they are purchased online or in a store, but they must be paid for during the tax-free weekend and shipped or received immediately. They do not have to arrive during tax-free weekend. Layaway items either completed or started during tax-free weekend also qualify. 

What’s not tax-free?

Athletic items: Sports shoes like cleats or fishing boots; sports equipment; sports clothing only used for the purpose of a sport.

Sewing items: Fabric, buttons and zippers.

Accessories: All accessories including jewelry and watches.

Bags: Purses; luggage; wallets and briefcases, or more than 10 backpacks.

Any item that is more than $100.

First day of school

When area school districts are starting: 

Aug. 9

Thrall ISD

Aug. 12

Lago Vista ISD

Leander ISD

Pflugerville ISD

Aug. 14

Fredericksburg ISD

Aug. 17

Austin ISD

Bastrop ISD

Dripping Springs ISD

Elgin ISD

Hutto ISD

Smithville ISD

Aug. 18

Burnet CISD

Coupland ISD

Del Valle ISD

Eanes ISD

Giddings ISD

Granger ISD

Johnson City ISD

Lake Travis ISD

Lockhart ISD

Marble Falls ISD

McDade ISD

Round Rock ISD

Taylor ISD

Wimberley ISD

Aug. 19

Georgetown ISD

Hays Consolidated ISD

Liberty Hill ISD

Aug. 23

Manor ISD

San Marcos CISD