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Leona O'Neill: We must prepare our kids for returning to the 'real world' under Covid-safe conditions

As vaccination continues and children return to school, many will be finding the experience of emerging from lockdown as stressful as going into it. It's important they know that it's normal to feel apprehensive, writes Leona O'Neill...

Schooling under Covid-safe restrictions is going to look and feel a lot different from normal

WITH the vaccine roll out going fantastically well in Northern Ireland and our Covid infection rates staying low, there is some justification for hope that this nightmare could soon be over.

Schools are gradually returning to on-site teaching, there is hope that lockdown measures will slowly and gradually lift between now and the summer, and normal life – fingers crossed – will come back. And that return to normal, after the last year of living and working and learning from home, will bring with it its own issues, stresses and anxieties.

As adults, our experiences in lockdown have been so very different. And the same can be said for our children. Many found it extremely difficult to be locked away at home, away from friends, away from school. Kids thrive on routine, and for many of them that disappeared completely. Many kids were going to bed late and sleeping late, struggling with homeschooling, not getting enough exercise or stimulation during the day and perhaps spending too much time playing games on their computers. Many got cabin fever, locked away with their family for so long.

For others, lockdown was bliss. They were able to spend time with their family at home, there was less pressure on them, there was no school and they didn't have to deal with aspects of life that they might have previously found very difficult.

Many of our kids perhaps fell in between both of those categories, experiencing good days and bad.

Whatever their experiences, there will be some trepidation now stepping back out into the real world after a year of cocooning. Things will look a lot different from the world they stepped away from. Masks and hand sanitation are normal now in school. The six feet of distance rule has to be obeyed. Things wont be 'normal' for a long time to come and it's important that we support our kids through this and talk to them about the changes that will impact on them.

We have all been told that it's unsafe to gather in crowds for over a year now. That we must stay home, stay away from people. Kids will be going into packed classrooms. It's important that they feel safe. Assure them that their school and their teacher have done everything to make their environment safe and that they have also have a role to play in keeping themselves and their friends safe. Prepare them for what they might see – their friends wearing masks, their teachers or school staff wearing Personal Protection Equipment, one way systems, sanitation stations.

Reassure them that it is perfectly normal to be scared and worried about change, that adults have the same feelings. It's important to take time to process the changes and focus on the positives – seeing their friends again, playing in the playground, seeing their teacher again, having fun, learning.

When lockdown is relaxed, normality will not just snap into place. As we move along this very uncertain path, new rules might arise. Talk to your child about wearing masks in class, as this is a possibility for some. Turn it into a lesson – one last homeschooling session, perhaps – and talk to them about countries like Japan, where people wear masks all the time, and that in such countries it's seen as polite to wear a mask when outside the home: indeed, masks have been fashionable in Japan for decades.

The weeks and months ahead of us will be uncertain, and it's important that our kids know that it's normal to feel apprehensive. We have just emerged from a scary global pandemic and will be navigating the aftermath of that for some time to come.

Kids will be processing this in different ways in their peer groups. Different fears will arise as we move forward. Keep the lines of communication open so that they can express their concerns and that you can keep them updated on happenings as they occur.

Kids are more resilient than most of us give them credit for. They have lived and learned through a major health crisis that turned all of our worlds upside down. All of us, kids included, deserve credit for keeping it together during these hellish times. Good luck to all the kids returning to school this week and in the weeks to come.

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