Updated on March 16 at 1 p.m. ET to reflect new guidance on play dates during school closures. This is an evolving story and guidance from health authorities is evolving quickly.
We are education reporters by day and parents by night (and day). But, in recent weeks, our two worlds have collided, with parents and educators equally concerned about the spread of COVID-19. So here's a quick rundown of some of the great questions we've heard from listeners and readers and the answers we've been able to explore in our reporting. For even more, you can listen to this new episode of NPR's Life Kit podcast.
Q. What's the single most important thing we can do to protect our kids?
Make sure they understand that hand-washing isn't optional. And that means showing them how to do it properly: using soap, warm water and time. Washing should take 20 seconds, which means you may need to help them find a song they can sing (in their heads, maybe twice) — like the ABCs or "Happy Birthday" songs. Be sure they wash whenever they come in from outside, before eating, after coughing or sneezing or blowing their nose and, of course, after using the bathroom.
For younger kids, it can't hurt to remind them that nose-picking is a no-go, and that they should cough into their elbows. If you're feeling ambitious, clip their fingernails frequently, as they provide a sneaky hiding spot for viruses. Hand lotion keeps skin comfy and unbroken, which also helps prevent the spread of infection.
A few more ideas: Try laundering things like coats, backpacks and reusable shopping bags more frequently and take off shoes when you come inside. For cleaning the house, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says "diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol, and most common EPA-registered household disinfectants should be effective."
Q. How do I get my kids to STOP TOUCHING THEIR FACES?
How do I get my kids to STOP TOUCHING THEIR FACES? Tips, tricks, and magic spells all welcome.— Julia Martin (@juliam_dc) March 11, 2020
Sorry. This is one of the few questions to which we have no good answer. Because I (Cory) have not yet figured out how to stop touching my own face.
As an experiment, maybe try making them wear scratchy mittens. Or do what I (Anya) did and paint your child's face — so you can catch them red-handed, though this could also lead to unwanted faceprints on walls and windows.
Q. This health crisis can be scary. How should we talk about it with kids?
Keep it simple, age-appropriate and fact-based. For example, don't tell your child they won't get COVID-19; you don't know that. Instead, the CDC suggests telling children that, from what doctors have seen so far, most kids aren't getting very sick. In fact, most people who've gotten COVID-19 haven't gotten very sick. Only a small group have had serious problems. And, channeling the great Mr. Rogers: Look for the Helpers. Assure your kids, if they (or someone they love) do get sick, the world is full of grown-ups who will help. And be sure to check out this incredible comic by our colleague, Malaka Gharib. She made it specifically for kids who may be scared or confused about coronavirus.
Q. With racist incidents toward Asians and Asian Americans, is this a teaching moment for social justice?
Not a parent but a former educator: how do we talk with kids about the #coronavirus without scaring them? And with racist incidents towards Asians and Asian-Americans, is this a teaching moment for social justice? How do we talk to kids who are being bullied, or are bullying?— Noelle E. C. Evans (@noellee_c_evans) March 11, 2020
Absolutely. We must remind the children in our lives that viruses can make anyone sick, regardless of a person's race or ethnicity. No matter where scientists first documented COVID-19, this outbreak isn't anyone's fault. Similarly, just because someone looks different or talks differently, doesn't mean they are at a higher risk of getting the coronavirus or spreading it. And let children know that if they hear language in school or on the playground that suggests otherwise, they should be sure to let you know.
Q. Why is/isn't my school being closed?
Closing schools is a complicated decision. Many school leaders and public health officials seem to be waiting for an infection or potential infection in their immediate school community before closing. While the science suggests closing schools earlier is more effective at slowing the spread of disease, it's important to understand why so many school leaders are so reluctant to close schools.
For one thing, parents should understand that for many kids in the United States, being sent home from school is also a public health risk. Many children may not have parents who can take off work, or work from home, if school is canceled. They may also live in unsafe neighborhoods. Millions of U.S. children rely on schools for free or reduced-price meals, too, and 1.5 million schoolchildren nationwide are housing-insecure. For many of these kids, having to miss several weeks of school could be incredibly destabilizing.
One more thing: Rest assured that the decision to close schools is not being taken lightly and is being made in conjunction with local public health officials. Emphasis on local — this decision is being made school by school, district by district.
Q. What do we do if school is canceled?
What do we do if school is cancelled? Are their online resources to help the kids continue learning and keep the family from going bonkers?— Cool Facts About Animals (@coolanimalspod) March 11, 2020
Many parents and caregivers will have to scramble for child care, especially low-wage workers who may not have vacation or sick leave. If you're not one of those parents, try to do something to help those who are. School closure can last two weeks or more; flexibility and empathy will help us all through this.
For parents who can stay home, many are wondering: What exactly is "social distancing?" Can my children still go on play dates? Or is it screen time, all the time?
The idea with closing schools is to limit the number of social contacts. That is what is going to be most effective in slowing the spread of this disease.
The guidance on this point from public health authorities is evolving quickly, and typically towards being more strict about this rather than less.
NPR spoke to Marco Ajelli and Maria Litvinova, two scholars who have published several papers on school closures in epidemics. Litvinova had this to say:
"If the school is closed for a certain amount of time, even if it's long and difficult for parents to organize the care, it's important that they do not regroup children again because the effect of the school closure will be much less."
She says new research looking at the origins of the coronavirus outbreak in Hubei Province in China, as well as her own work looking at school closures due to flu outbreaks in Russia, suggests that limiting contacts to the size of the household, plus at most one other person, is ideal.
Ajelli echoed Litvinova: "To limit contact to two to three persons per day probably is enough to stop the epidemic to spread substantially." So depending on the size of your family, that could be it.
Families across the country are getting very creative with virtual play dates using video chat as well as platforms like Roblox, which allows kids to chat while playing a video game together.
Some public health authorities have suggested that for older children who can respect social distancing, outdoor meetups in open spaces might be permissible. But this hasn't been specifically studied, our sources say.
Q. What does it mean to work from home and parent young (preschool and elementary) kids that are home as a result of school closures at the same time? Disney+ all day everyday???
What does it mean to WFH and parent young (preschool and elem) kids that are home as a result of school closures at the same time? Disney+ all day everyday???— Sara Kerr (@educhicdc) March 11, 2020
Common Sense Media is a great resource for quality screen-time recommendations both free and paid, educational and purely recreational — including privacy tips. I (Anya) like Duolingo for language learning, Tynker for coding and Khan Academy for academic subjects. Epic is a subscription service with endless books and comics for tablets, searchable by age.
As we said, you can also get creative with video chat. In addition to checking in with grandparents, try setting up a remote play date for your kids. Some long-distance families stay connected with a Zoom or Google hangout portal that just stays open. Try playing hide-and-seek by carrying a laptop around the house!
Also, if school's been canceled, think about using video chat to continue learning opportunities: piano lessons, tutoring or Sunday school with your child's regular teacher. A company called Outschool does live online classes for kids.
There are even physical screen-time options. GoNoodle offers both physical dance/movement and meditation videos, and this is a great time for everyone in the family to learn TikTok dances like the Renegade.
Special note on teens and screens: Online spaces are their social spaces and it's good to respect that. Take this as an opportunity to learn more about their online worlds. Help them bust rumors and disinformation. (Check out this free online module to become an expert detector of coronavirus hoaxes.) Check in with their mental health. Be a media mentor.
Q. What about non-screen activities?
Yes! Getting outside isn't just a good idea, it's good for your physical and mental health. Go for a walk, a bike ride or, if possible, a family hike.
And here's a wild card: While everyone's home, try giving the kids more responsibility around the house, including cooking a meal or doing the laundry. And cleaning — there's going to be a lot of cleaning to do!
ANYA KAMENETZ, HOST:
Hi, I'm Anya Kamenetz, an NPR reporter and the mother of two girls.
CORY TURNER, HOST:
And I'm Cory Turner, an education reporter and the dad of two boys. And today, we're going to talk with you about really the only thing that Anya and I have been talking about for the last two weeks - coronavirus.
KAMENETZ: Obviously, right? That's what everyone has been talking about.
TURNER: So this is going to be a special LIFE KIT parenting episode about how to talk with young kids about coronavirus, how to deal with school closures. Maybe your school is closed, or maybe it isn't and you're worried about why it isn't. We're also going to talk about some screen time strategies if your kids are home and, most importantly, how to keep our kids healthy.
KAMENETZ: And because we're education reporters, we are in the privileged position of talking to experts about this. And so we thought that we would come to you, our LIFE KIT listeners, and pull together everything that is potentially useful. So here we go.
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TURNER: A quick note before we get started. This is a very fluid situation so this episode was recorded on Thursday, March 12th. And it is perfectly possible that things might have changed - our understanding of this disease might have evolved by the time you hear this.
Takeaway No. 1 - and we're going to start super basic here - is, we've said this two weeks ago, we're going to say it again - your kids need to understand not only that it is important to wash their hands, but, really, show them how to wash their hands well. Make sure they take 20 seconds. Make sure they use soap. And, you know, have them sing a song in their heads. Whatever it is, whatever it takes, this is seriously one of the most powerful things that you and they can do to protect not only themselves but all of us.
KAMENETZ: Right. So when should they wash their hands? They should wash their hands when they come in from outside, before eating. And then coming along with that - so I spoke to a friend of mine, Kavitha (ph), and she is the mom, actually, of an immunocompromised kid. He's 3 years old. He's doing pretty well. But he had - he's had a stem cell transplant in the past, so they are really, really used to all this stuff as a family. And here's some of the stuff that she told me.
KAVITHA: As soon as we walk inside, we just wash our hands for a good 30 seconds to a minute.
KAMENETZ: Do you use lotion?
KAVITHA: We use lotion because the handwashing can really cause your skin to crack. We use Aquaphor.
KAMENETZ: And things that we might not think of - don't forget to clip your fingernails every other day. Keep them short because a virus hides under there. And we've heard this thing to stop touching your face, right?
TURNER: Yeah. It's very hard for me. I will fully admit I caught myself on the metro this morning touching my nose.
KAMENETZ: Right. So something...
TURNER: Sorry everybody who saw me do it. I know it was really alarming. Sorry.
KAMENETZ: So a couple of tips - one is I painted my toddler's face yesterday and she had touched it so many times within, like, five minutes.
KAMENETZ: And I think it was actually a pretty good reminder for us - still spitballing on that one.
TURNER: (Laughter) All right. Moving on to takeaway No. 2 - when we're talking about coronavirus, it is really important to give them facts and be reassuring.
TURNER: Don't make promises, though, that you cannot keep.
TURNER: So the big thing that comes to mind for me is any parent's first reaction when a child asks, am I going to get coronavirus, is going to be, well, no, of course not, that - no, don't be silly. Don't say that because you don't know that. That is not a promise that you can keep.
And so instead - and these recommendations come directly from the CDC - talk about what COVID-19 looks and feels like, say, you know, it can feel kind of like a flu. People can get a fever or a cough. They might have a hard time breathing. You can be reassuring that only a small group of people, really, who get it actually have more serious problems. And we also know from what doctors have seen so far that kids don't seem to be getting very sick.
KAMENETZ: Yeah, that's a huge one, I think, for kids to listen to and to hear is that very, very few kids have gotten sick.
TURNER: Yeah, absolutely. And Anya, one more thing just because I don't think we can say this enough in every episode that we do for parents and kids is always double down on the fact that there are helpers out there. There are always helpers. Whether you get sick with COVID-19 or flu or you fall off your bicycle and break your arm, there are going to be folks out there who will help you get through this.
KAMENETZ: Yeah, totally. You know, we have a whole LIFE KIT episode on talking to kids about scary stuff in the news. But just in a 30-second recap, ask what they have heard, what rumors they may have come across, ask how they're feeling, make sure that you check in and limit the flow of information in your house. And honestly, this really goes for parents, too. You know, no screens in the bedroom at night. Don't play the news all day. We all need to take a lot of breaks from what's coming in at us.
KAMENETZ: So our takeaway No. 3 is that we should all try to reduce any stigma or misinformation or xenophobia around this virus.
TURNER: Yeah. You may have heard politicians talking about the Chinese coronavirus. You know, it's been kicking around. It's very important, especially when you talk to school leaders, educators, social workers - it's very important when talking with kids especially about this outbreak that we don't try to assign blame because this disease affects all of us, and we all need to help protect each other.
KAMENETZ: Our takeaway No. 4 is about closing schools. And, you know, Cory's been reporting on this. It's really a complicated decision.
TURNER: Yeah. I think we're really just at the beginning of a wave of closures. And there are a couple of things that I really want parents to understand here. I know there's been a lot of clamor from parents to close schools now. And there is research - Anya, you and I both know this. There is research out there that says that closing schools proactively - doing it early - does help slow the spread of disease. It is effective.
But the thing I want parents to understand is there are very real public health concerns and risks that come with closing the schools. So think about it, in this country, we have nearly 30 million kids who depend on schools for free or reduced-price breakfast, lunch, sometimes even dinner.
KAMENETZ: Yeah. And we have a million and a half kids, sadly, that don't have stable housing. So I guess the take-homes here are just to know this is a very complicated decision. Obviously, authorities are making it. Understand the pressure that they're under and figure out ways that we as communities can pull together and help the kids that are needier in our communities when it comes to this. And I've already heard of really creative thoughts around that, sort of extending meal distribution in communities, for example. So we should all be on the lookout for ways to help, I think.
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TURNER: Takeaway No. 5 now is if school does close, you still have options.
KAMENETZ: OK. This was a key question for me, which was, is it OK to have playdates or to trade off for child care if you need to?
TURNER: Yeah, yeah.
KAMENETZ: Basically, the science of this is the idea with closing schools is to limit the number of social contacts. In an ideal world, you would limit social contacts just to the people in your immediate family. That's what's most effective in slowing the spread of the disease.
TURNER: Yeah you need to be able to practice social distancing. Think of it as a good opportunity for a one-on-one hangouts.
TURNER: The real key here is avoid larger groups - anything 50 people or more, which is why we're seeing so much guidance now canceling everything from public sporting events to church on Sundays.
KAMENETZ: That's right. And so when you do get together, you know, you need to be able to practice social distancing and that means elbow bumping, waving. It's really, really hard if you have a young, young child. This might be off limits, right? It might be hard to get them to understand that.
And then we also - and I put you in mind to the fact that we need to be extra careful of our grandparents, older folks, anyone who's immunocompromised, has respiratory issues, those are our most vulnerable family members. And you know, it's hard. They want to see their grandkids. But that's the most dangerous.
TURNER: Yeah. And I want to say one thing on that count because my parents live about 45 minutes away from me. And I'm going to take this as an opportunity to really improve my FaceTime game with them.
KAMENETZ: Perfect timing. Create that...
KAMENETZ: ...Screen time. And, you know, that's kind of my thing. So our takeaway No. 6 is that, actually, there are better ways to do screen time. You don't have to be 24/7 Disney Plus...
KAMENETZ: ...And nothing else. I have a bunch of tips on this. Some schools are going to be sending home online homework while some will not. There's equity issues involved with that. I would encourage people to kind of think creatively about this because it's going to get really old after a couple days. Common Sense Media has put out a bunch of quality screen time recommendations - both free and paid - including privacy tips, which you want to think about if you're downloading a whole much a new apps.
So let's think really creative about what you might be able to do over video chat. Could you do your piano lessons on video chat? Could you do Sunday school on video chat? And then socializing - right? - so playdates, grandparents, like you mentioned, Cory. So you can read books over video chat. You can play hide and seek by carrying the laptop around the house. And...
TURNER: You could cook together.
KAMENETZ: You can cook together, totally. You could have a dance party together.
KAMENETZ: It doesn't mean, however, that you can't do enrichment.
KAMENETZ: That you have to just, you know, resign yourself to totally entertainment-based time. I mean, there's Khan Academy if they want to do different kinds of math. There is Tynker and a lot of other tools for practicing coding online. So you know, you might want to divide your screen time into vegetables and dessert and not just let them do entertainment all day, every day.
KAMENETZ: I want to think about the physical screen time options. So GoNoodle is something we use in our house. It's free videos with dances and also there's meditation videos and yoga videos on GoNoodle. Cosmic Kids Yoga is another video channel on YouTube that's all, like, yoga videos that work with even very young kids. It's also a really good time for everyone in the family to learn the Renegade...
KAMENETZ: ...And other viral dance crazes on TikTok. Like, make it active, right? It doesn't have to be a totally solo pursuit.
TURNER: Right. I'm going to state the obvious here, too, y'all, if this isn't already kicking around in your brain right now as we're talking, which is even though coronavirus is out there, it's still OK to go outside.
TURNER: Go in your yard. Go to a park. Go for a walk. As long as you're not holding hands in a human chain of 50 or more people, it's OK. And we know there are very clear mental health benefits for kids and adults alike - getting out, getting some sun. So shut down the screens consistently and get out.
KAMENETZ: I just want to mention, you know, that for teens in particular this is a little bit different, right? Online spaces often are their social spaces. So if you're going to be spending time at home with your teen, it's a good idea to respect that. And really, this is an opportunity for you to learn more about their online worlds. Help them bust rumors and disinformation. Don't shut off the screens entirely because this really is their lifeline to the outside world for a lot of teens.
And at the same time, kind of an overlooked activity for your kids is chores. Yay.
KAMENETZ: You know, a lot of us are doing more cleaning than usual. So we - you know, we can involve our kids in that. I asked Kavitha about how she keeps her 3-year-old, now, busy when he has to be home almost all the time. And she said he loves helping her clean the refrigerator - no lie.
KAVITHA: Like, I wipe down the refrigerator shelves and all of the bottles in the refrigerators every two days. And so I give him just a wet wipe and then I'll use a disinfecting wipe, and then he will do a shelf and I'll do a shelf. You know, he likes to do those kinds of things with me.
TURNER: Oh, my goodness, I need a child like that in my house.
KAMENETZ: Cory, should we try to do a recap?
TURNER: All right. This will be fun. Let's try this.
KAMENETZ: Takeaway No. 1 is wash your hands.
TURNER: Wash them well. Wash them for a while. Make sure your kids know to do the same. Also, stop touching your face.
Takeaway No. 2 - when you're talking with your kids, be sure to give them facts. Don't make promises you cannot keep, and be reassuring. Remind them there are helpers out there.
KAMENETZ: And takeaway No. 3 is about stigma. We need to remind our kids that anybody can get sick, that the illness doesn't come from any type of person. That's our job as parents to reinforce that moral point.
TURNER: Takeaway No. 4 - closing schools is a really complicated decision. And it's important for all of us to understand that there are public health risks, not only to keeping schools open but also the closing.
KAMENETZ: Takeaway No. 5 - when schools do close, it doesn't mean kids have to be totally socially isolated. Get creative with video chat and social games like Roblox.
TURNER: And takeaway No. 6 - screen time can be your friend...
TURNER: ...As long as you listen to Anya's great suggestions to keep kids active mentally and physically.
One more thing parents - just a reminder - take a deep breath.
KAMENETZ: We're going to get through this.
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KAMENETZ: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got a great one on coronavirus from our science reporters.
TURNER: Yeah. And we've also obviously got plenty of parenting episodes when you're done with the coronavirus episode. You can find all of them at npr.org/lifekit.
KAMENETZ: And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, you can subscribe to our newsletter or you can drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TURNER: Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Cory Turner.
KAMENETZ: I'm Anya Kamenetz. Thanks for listening.
TURNER: Go wash your hands.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.