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Stories: Voices from the frontline

Benjamin Starnes, M.D.

With virtually every school district in western Washington opting to start the new year with remote learning, kids in the Puget Sound region won’t see the inside of a classroom anytime soon. While that will no doubt offer challenges to learning, Benjamin Starnes, M.D., suggests that parents pay just as much attention to their children’s social and emotional health. We caught the regional medical director of pediatrics and primary care for Swedish Medical Group in between patients to ask for advice on navigating our new educational reality.

Despite recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics that students should be “physically present in school” this fall, a majority of local schools will start the year remotely. What are parents supposed to make of that contradiction?

What the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended is that the ultimate goals should be children are physically at school. However, they do add several caveats to that. One is knowing the local infection rates, and another is whether the school can safely accommodate social distancing and protecting the staff. They acknowledged that each school district is going to have different resources and each region, city or state is going to have different situations regarding infection rates.

How do you feel about the idea of kids learning remotely this fall?

I support the school systems and their decisions. The children I'm most worried about are the ones who depend on the school for a meal each day and for structure. We have to acknowledge that there's a relatively large subset of the population that may not get a meal each day and may not have a parent who is able to get them out of bed, get them to the computer and help them learn in that structured environment.

But based on my review of what the Seattle Public School System has proposed, they really do have a nice, robust plan. Hopefully they will have the resources and the ability to follow through.

What can parents start doing now to prepare their children for the social and emotional adjustment to remote learning?

The number one thing families can do is start planning. Children need to have a schedule. They can experience anxiety about an uncertain future, and they also experience stress related to a lack of a schedule. I understand that parents may not know exactly what the school schedule is going to be, so they have to pay attention to what the school is sending them and recommending. It never hurts to go ahead and start mocking up a Monday-through-Friday schedule and letting the child know, "This is what your day will be like when school starts back."

How can parents address the changes with their children without adding to their anxiety?

The younger the child, the more complicated it can be helping them understand. What parents can do is acknowledge that it's uncertain and acknowledge that it can be scary not knowing what's going to happen. But they can also point out what we do have control over: what happens in our home on a day-to-day basis, when we get out of bed and eat breakfast, when we see mom and dad, when mom and dad go to work and when they come home.

One of the things I've encouraged during this whole crisis is that families continue to have dinner together or a meal together, where they sit around the table and everyone talks about their day and what they're thinking about. Younger children may not be able to do that, but they're going to listen to their parents and their older siblings do it. There's some comfort and learning that takes place in how we verbalize how we're feeling.

We’ve talked a lot about mental health. What should parents keep in mind about their children’s physical health?

One of the things I've noticed since the pandemic started is that exercise and time outside has drastically dropped. Some of that is concern about being around other people. Some of it is that parents are working from home and they're learning this new schedule, too.

But now that we have several months of this under our belt, I want parents to start thinking about how to make sure their children are getting exercise every day. Exercise is the simplest thing you can do to help with pretty much everything: mental health, weight, appetite, behavior, ADD, you name it. And the best exercise is outdoor exercise.             

What about the parents themselves? What advice can you offer someone who's trying to juggle working from home while managing their child's remote learning?

I suggest everyone have compassion for themselves. This is hard on everyone. It's okay to say, "Today's just not going to work out." I think families should have a mental health day for the whole family if they need it. I would encourage those parents to reach out to their pediatricians. We have lots of advice for parents, depending on the situation. One of the pluses with this pandemic is that a lot of the mental health counselors are now available online and virtually, which has really increased their availability to people in need.

I think one of the things parents sometimes do is feel like they need to hide their stress from the child. But children are more perceptive than we think they are. They pick up on that stress, so it's better to be open about it. If you’re stressed and you verbalize that to your child in a positive way—"I'm stressed about this, and I'm going to go for a walk because that makes me feel better."—you've just taught them how to handle stress and helped them build some resilience.

Your support can help provide mental health resources for children and their families. To learn how you can help, please contact Libby Schoenborn at 920-418-4626 or libby.schoenborn@swedish.org or Mike Delgado at 561-758-5743 or michael.delgado@swedish.org.

Join us next Fri. Aug. 14 at 12 p.m. for our next Facebook Live with pediatricians Drs. Chinonyelum Obih and Rupin Thakkar as they help parents, educators and students of all ages navigate the uncertainty surrounding schools reopening and back-to-school safety as a source of anxiety.