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Your Burning Back-to-School Questions Answered By Experts

A Q+A with Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer on parents' burning BTS questions

Published on: August 30, 2021

mother and son walking out the front door on the first day of school

After 18 months (and what feels like a quadrillion Zoom classes), our kids are returning to school, that once-familiar and yearned-for social and learning landscape. We’re all experiencing a mixed bag of emotions about the return to in-person instruction: Depending on the day and the news cycle, our relief and excitement can quickly lose in a tug-of-war with fear and uncertainty. What is certain, however, is that we all — kids, parents and teachers alike — have a newfound appreciation for learning in person. 

ParentMap reached out to Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer, co-directors of NYC Teachers Who Tutor and co-authors of the indispensable guidebook “Taking the Stress Out of Homework,” to seek their expert advice for navigating this momentous back-to-school transition — and for reassurance that the kids are going to be alright.

It’s been nearly two years of remote schooling or start-and-stop in-person instruction. How can I make sure that my kids catch up to where they should be? 

Nearly all parents are concerned that their kids didn’t learn nearly as much as they would have pre-pandemic, or that they have fallen behind academically. First and foremost, it is the job of the teachers to ensure that students are “where they need to be” academically by the end of this school year, and what that will mean this year. Teachers will need to thoroughly assess their students’ skills across subjects at the beginning of the school year before jumping into new topics, and reevaluate their curricular focus accordingly. Many students will need to spend more time shoring up skills from the previous year before delving into new material.

If you’re concerned about “catching up,” check in with your child’s teacher from last year or their teacher for this school year to see if they have specific recommendations. While there’s no “one size fits all” answer, in general, we recommend that your child read (or that you read to your child or do shared reading) on a daily or almost daily basis. If your child could use practice with reading or with math skills, repetition is key. It’s better for them to do 20 minutes a day, for example, than work for a couple of hours straight one day.

When it comes to preparation, though, the best advice you can give your child is to encourage them to ask questions, whether they are curious, confused or need clarification. Sharing with your children the importance of self-advocacy and speaking up as active participants in the class is key to helping them stay engaged, understand the material and also help their classmates in furthering the class discussion with their line of inquiry. Asking questions is the sign of an active learner.

How will this school year be different from past ones, pre-COVID?

The reality is that none of us knows for sure. Our hope, of course, is that 100 percent of schools will be open for in-person learning and that students younger than 12 will be able to be vaccinated sooner rather than later. In all likelihood, most students will be masked for much of the year, which may continue to make it more difficult for young children to read emotion, and challenging for teachers with large class sizes to be able to tell if their students are confused when they don’t feel comfortable raising their hand. This is why speaking up and asking questions in class discussions is more crucial than ever before.

What do we know for sure? This year will bring with it a recalibration of “back to normal,” while reestablishing what “normal” is in the first place. As children try to adjust to the unique rhythms of a new school year, teachers and parents will need to be keenly attuned to how children are doing psychologically, socially and academically. Some students will need more work with foundations that might not have been as firmly reinforced during challenges of remote learning, while others may be ready for new material. Some kids will be relieved to be back to school in person to see their friends and have classes in person, while others might be worried about the social dynamics of school. So, teachers will need to assess and reassess each student’s unique set of needs to gauge how they are doing.

How can I prepare my child for social reintegration at school after so much time being remote over the past year? 

The best way to prepare your child for social reentry is to have them engage in activities with other children on a regular basis, wherever possible. Setting up playdates or small social gatherings can also help them to reestablish an in-person rapport with friends and classmates. Before the school year starts, giving them opportunities to interact with peers is essential so they can feel more confident and happier about the return to school. Participation in group activities will provide them with an opportunity to collaborate and practice conflict resolution, skills that will be invaluable both in and out of the classroom and for years to come.

How can I get my child to be less addicted to screen time, which has been a mainstay of their existence for the past year and a half?

We can’t tell you how many parents have asked us this question. The biggest change for most children this school year will be the shift from remote school to in-person learning. Because technology has been necessary both for attending school and maintaining connections with friends, setting limits has been fraught, at best, for most parents. This next school year will hopefully be different: In-person learning means that technology will no longer be the sole means through which kids can attend school and interact with their friends.

We recommend discussing technological expectations a couple of weeks before school begins. Be honest with your children: The past couple of years have been incredibly difficult, and now that they will be in school and seeing their friends, it’s time to recalibrate. Set expectations and limits in advance, and then be consistent about sticking with them. In general, we recommend completing homework before screen time and giving kids more time for screen use over the weekend. Using screen-time limits on devices can help minimize potential tensions. Establish the ground rules and then allow them to have freedom and control within those limits. The point is not to punish your children, rather to give them an opportunity to reengage in the real world through socialization and academics in person. 

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