A teacher addresses a class at Lincoln Middle School on the first day of school, Aug. 23, in Kansas City. Like most KC-area school districts, Kansas City Public Schools requires masks. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

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Rebecca Troyer said her 5-year-old son, Gavin, had no problem when masks were required at Belton Public Schools last year. “He did really good keeping his mask on in pre-K,” she said. 

But Belton is one of a few Kansas City-area school systems not requiring masks this fall. So Troyer worried it would be harder for her son to keep up COVID-19 precautions.  

“If he’s not constantly reminded, or if he doesn’t see other kids keeping them (masks) on, he’s not going to keep it on,” she said. “And that’s what scares me. … Are the teachers going to be able to enforce that?”

Troyer ultimately decided to hold Gavin back a year rather than send him to a mask-optional school. Gavin is autistic, which Troyer said makes it a bit harder for him to keep his mask on without encouragement from the school. It also means he needs special education services that are harder to access virtually. 

Most districts on both the Kansas and Missouri sides of the metro area are requiring masks. But as local mandates expire or COVID-19 case numbers drop, schools may change their COVID-19 safety rules, leaving parents in difficult situations like Troyer’s. 

We’ve talked to experts and found resources to answer your questions about how to encourage children to stay safe at school.

How should I talk about COVID-19 safety with young children? 

Angela Dunn, behavioral health coordinator at Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, said parents should keep conversations age-appropriate. It can be frightening for young children when parents share information they don’t understand, like statistics and risk factors. 

Instead, parents should support children’s needs for “structure, predictability and consistency.” Parents and educators can frame COVID-19 guidelines as just another rule children are expected to follow.

Guidance on the Children’s Mercy website about helping children wear masks suggests explaining COVID-19 to young children in simple ways, such as: “Germs can go from our body to someone else’s body.”

It helps to reinforce messages about COVID-19 safety during multiple conversations, said Dr. Angela Myers, infectious diseases division director at Children’s Mercy. 

Parents can also model wearing a mask by putting theirs on first, let children practice wearing a mask at home, and make sure the mask is as comfortable as possible, the Children’s Mercy guidance says. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers parental resource kits for kids and young adults. Resources for young children include an educational activity book and board game. 

How should I talk about COVID-19 safety with older kids or teens?

Parents can be more open about COVID-19 with middle and high school students, Dunn said, but should still consider what their children need to know or are capable of understanding. 

One way to decide what to share is to be guided by what questions children are asking.

Upon arriving at school, parents help students check temperatures and wash hands to help fight the spread of COVID on the first day of school, Aug. 23, at African-Centered College Preparatory Academy in Kansas City. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

“We don’t want to instill fear in their kids if they’re not fearful,” she said. “If they’re not asking and they’re not fearful, then we don’t need to impose that on them.” 

Myers suggested parents ask older kids to weigh in on safety decisions and talk about what they are hearing from their friends. 

Myers also suggested parents ask open-ended questions about fears or peer pressure. Resources for young adults on the CDC website include conversation starters to address feelings and struggles related to COVID-19.

If kids are worried about pushback or questions from friends, both Dunn and Myers suggested helping them prepare what to say in response. One example could be: “I choose to wear a mask while I’m at school because I want to protect you and me, and I have seen serious infections happen from this disease,” Myers said.

What if COVID-19 is causing my kid to feel scared or anxious? 

Parents should validate their children’s feelings but also provide reassurance that safety precautions are effective and adults are working to protect them, Dunn said. 

“I think it’s important for parents to know that most children will manage all of this OK … even if they’re showing some signs of anxiety” such as sleep issues or trouble focusing, Dunn added. 

More severe symptoms, such as crying, clinginess, severe sleep problems, acting out or lack of interest in normal activities, might be a cause for greater concern. 

“If those things are lasting more than two weeks … parents should certainly reach out to a mental health professional or their behavioral health social worker.”

Even if kids aren’t showing obvious symptoms of anxiety, it is important to ask how they are feeling about COVID-19, Myers said. 

“A lot of times, kids don’t tell us their concerns or fears because they don’t want their parents to be worried about them, or they think they can handle it,” she said. “And this is the time to be asking those questions and having an open conversation about it.”

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Maria Benevento

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.