The end of summer vacation is usually a reason for celebration for most parents of school-age children (don’t tell the kids).

After two-and-a-half months of juggling work, household duties and engaging their children, school doors open and parents suddenly have a big chunk of day now gloriously kid-free.

Not so in 2020.

Back to School 2020

“It’s really strange this idea of moving from summer at home to online school at home,” said Susanna Block, a Kaiser Permanente pediatrician and mother of two children, ages 10 and 8. “It seems seamless.”

Oh, but it is not, as Block and any other parent will tell you. As the coronavirus continues to surge in the U.S., we find ourselves right back where we were in June: frazzled, frustrated and uncertain how to proceed as another round of forced home schooling begins.

We’d like to tell you it will be easy after talking with experts about strategies to survive and thrive, but it probably won’t be.

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Just as a reminder: “There are no magic bullets,” said Doug Wear, director of the community counseling and psychology clinic at Antioch University Seattle.

We’ve assembled advice below on how to ease your burden, help your kids shake out of screen-induced haze, and set and maintain routines and philosophies that could carry over into a post-pandemic world. We hope you find inspiration.

But first, breathe.

“We’re going to have to be really compassionate with ourselves,” Block said. “We’re going to try our best to work on it, regroup, decide what works and modify. We’re not going to get it perfect. We’re going to have to be kind to ourselves and to our kids. We’re going to have better days and worse days.”

Quarantine bubbles

(Illustration by Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times)
(Illustration by Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times)

The trick is to stack up those better days. So where to start?

Though it may feel this way, hunkered down in your house, you are not alone. All around you, parents have that trapped, claustrophobic feeling that they’ll never catch a break again. Whether its Zoom-ing to work, backing up (or doing the job of) the teachers, or fixing lunch and dinner, alone time just isn’t possible in a locked-down house. Or is it?

One solution many families are experimenting with: a quarantine bubble. It’s not just happening in professional sports. Bubbles are popping up all over as small groups of two to three families, friends or neighbors team up. The groups can work together in a variety of ways and generally agree not to socialize with outsiders to keep things safe. (Keep in mind that Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening guidelines restrict social gatherings to no more than five people outside your household per week for counties in Phase 2, such as King, Pierce and Snohomish, and up to 10 people for counties in Phase 3.)

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Along with the potential for alone time, quarantine bubbles could also help facilitate online learning.

“The interesting factor wears down really quick” with online learning, said Leslie Blevins, a Spokane child psychologist. “And so if kids are maybe going among two or three houses and switching it up, each parent will have a different style and that will keep it interesting. And this will help each parent prevent burnout and keep their enthusiasm up easier. And that will prevent burnout among the kids as well.”

However, many are also concerned that the rise of these “pandemic pods” to help parents home-school their children could worsen the opportunity gap, so that’s something to keep in mind as you navigate the situation.

Shake up the paradigm

Pandemic parents often say they feel like their kids are taking over their lives. But Blevins believes parents have a unique opportunity thanks to COVID-19 to wrest back control and shake up the paradigm. If they’re willing to think freely.

“There’s so much about pre-pandemic life that was not necessarily healthy or promoting the kind of life we might imagine for ourselves if we could re-create it and have it be whatever we want,” Blevins said. “And so I think this is actually a perfect time where we’re throwing out the boundaries that were put upon us and we can create our own new boundaries that really help us be who we want to be.”

She believes U.S. schools could soon toss out the idea of synchronous learning, where kids all work at the same pace, freeing parents and children from the Monday-through-Friday grind. Until then there are steps parents can take to improve their lot.

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“Do you want to be miserable because your kid is playing video games all day?” Blevins asked. “Or do you want to maybe train your kid to go on a walk with you each day and you guys develop this healthy routine where you’re actually connecting and having a conversation and over time that becomes your new normal? Or your family cooks dinner together. And maybe that not only teaches you guys how to have a conversation that’s a lively debate, but you’ve actually started learning the thoughts and opinions of your children and your spouse. And you actually feel like they’re invested in you, too. It’s a totally different way of living.”

(Illustration by Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times)
(Illustration by Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times)

The glaze

You’ve seen the look: dull, unfocused eyes, mouth slightly open, face lit up by a screen.

It’s not just your kids. Even engaged adults struggle with the enormous amount of screen time we’re experiencing in school, work and personal entertainment.

“We’ve got graduate students working on their doctorate sitting in front of screens for three-hour classes,” Wear said of Antioch students. “And the one thing we noticed is the participation levels in terms of the exchanges are down compared to a live class. It’s just very hard in an online world to get that same energy and camaraderie.”

The glazed eyes can be more than an indication your child has reached maximum screen time. They might also be an indication your child has moved into a kind of survival mode. Children are emotional sponges, Wear said, so another important component is how you are reacting to the pandemic and its unique challenges. If you’re frazzled, it’s likely your kids are picking up on that, too.

“They’re absorbing your stress and anxiety and exhaustion and fatigue and depression, whatever you have,” Wear said.

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Setting the tone

One way to help counter that and get the kids mentally prepared is to approach the school year the way you always do: with a little excitement.

The best part about returning to school — besides the social aspects — are the new clothes and gear kids often get. There’s no reason you can’t do that now, with some modifications. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It could be as simple as a new notebook or carving out personal work space with a cardboard divider so your child can make a place of their own.

(Illustration by Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times)
(Illustration by Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times)

“We are going back to school,” Block said. “So some of the traditions that I think we’ve probably all grown up with, whether it’s cleaning out our kids’ rooms, whether it’s deciding how to organize our schoolwork, getting a few new school supplies, getting haircuts, I would really encourage people to do those things. It’s a ritual that we understand that helps us frame the fact that we are going back to school. It sets the tone.”

Setting the tone is an apt description. It’s up to parents to help kids select the right attitude about work. After a summer of more relaxed rules and perhaps unregulated screen time, it would be easy for those summer habits to bleed into school time. What’s the harm in playing a video game during that busy Zoom class? Plenty.

“I think we need to help kids recognize this is their work right now,” Block said. “It’s no less important and it’s no less serious even though we’re doing it from home. You have expectations that you will do their homework, that you will turn it in. Your goal is to learn stuff.”

Enforcing a structure — for the day, for school, for free time and chore time — will make things easier, for adults and kids. But it also comes with some steep hurdles that not everyone will want to clear.

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“Anybody who’s worked from home realizes that your workday kind of bleeds into evening and you’re never really done,” Block said. “And screens are on all the time. I feel like it’s going to be important for us to decide as individuals and families when to turn off the screens. Like, this is your work time and this is play time — screens off, outside — to keep up the energy.”

Outside? You remember that concept. It will be no less important this year. School-age children need to move at least 60 minutes a day. Be creative in the way you tick off those minutes and your daily routine might not be so onerous.

“If they’re tethered to a computer for six hours, maybe dance for lunch breaks or use that as an opportunity to get outside,” Block said. “There are ways to be social and to be safe. Take a weekly hike or a walk with friends or kick a soccer ball around. That’s the sort of thing that would be helpful to us to stay healthy throughout this year.”

Back-to-school laptop guide: Pandemic survival edition