How to Teach Younger Students COVID-19 Classroom Safety Protocols

As states and regions nationwide grapple with when to return to the classroom, they face a lengthy list of guidelines for keeping students and staff safe. These safety practices are complicated enough for most educators and administrators to follow, much less their young students who are still learning basic classroom behavior. 

Teachers are often left trying to keep up with safety protocols — teaching students along the way how to follow the rules. This guide will provide tips for a variety of instruction types with an emphasis on positive educational practices, guiding students to embrace the new classroom experience and feel comfortable through the pandemic and beyond.

Discussing the Coronavirus in the Classroom

While the pandemic isn’t new to many students — especially those whose education was disrupted last spring — your students may have some questions about the new protocols and the spread of the virus. As a teacher, you may be wondering what you should say and how much bad news your students can handle. 

“Kids speak energy long before they speak words, which means that kids are picking up on the adults’ energy around all of this,” Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, psychologist and parenting educator, says. “It is upon us as adults to clean up our energy, our thoughts and our actions in order to communicate the belief that we have got this.” 

If you are stressed or upset about the new guidelines, your students will pick up on it. They will also approach everything related to the pandemic with caution and fear. Take time to gather your thoughts and determine the best way to present COVID-19 protocols to your class. 

“Be straightforward,” Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., founder of the Character Lab, says. “This doesn’t mean false certainty…But it does mean being clear about what is known and, in addition, owning up to the fact that so many important questions remain unanswered for the time being.”

Understanding how much you should discuss and in what tone requires a delicate balance. You don’t want to hide information from your students, or even make it seem like you are, but you also don’t need to traumatize them.

“Children have elaborate imaginations that may lead them to create unnecessarily catastrophic stories in their minds if parents do not talk at all, or enough, about a topic like this,” writes clinical psychologist Jacqueline Sperling at Harvard Health Publishing. “At the other end of the spectrum, providing too much information may create extra alarm.” 

For a good resource, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress for helping kids and teens discuss the coronavirus. They create age-appropriate examples for preschoolers, school-age children and teens. They also have sections for explaining how we protect ourselves and explaining how we put others at risk. This is a good jumping-off point for a classroom discussion about COVID-19 and changes in your classroom.  

classroom safety protocols

Teaching Social Distancing

Once your students are on the same page regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, you can move forward with instructions on how to behave in the classroom during the pandemic.  

“Behavior management is going to be crucial this year,” teacher educator Kelly Jackson writes. “[Students] have been out of school for so long and are going to need reminders of what classroom expectations are… [also] the classroom is going to look so different this year and you need to be able to have control of your students at a moment’s notice.”

Younger students might expect hugs from their teachers (or at least high-fives) or they might have been away from the class for a year if they didn’t return in the fall semester. You may need to spend more time covering basic rules — like sitting at a desk and raising your hand — while introducing new social distancing measures. 

If you are worried about students feeling lonely or isolated with social distancing, there are many ways to engage your classes in hands-free activities to connect with them. 

“Use social distancing-friendly greetings, such as air high fives, air fist bumps, peace signs, air handshakes, dance breaks, class cheers, and the most basic of them all, cheerful hellos,” writes Melissa at The Printable Princess. “This would be an awesome opportunity to learn sign language too!”

You aren’t the only educator teaching kids how to social distance. Teacher Jill Staake shares 10 videos that make social distancing less scary in an article for We Are Teachers. You can pick a few videos to share with your students in class, send them to parents to share at home, or challenge your students to create their own videos with songs or dances related to staying together while standing apart. 

Encouraging Students to Wear Masks All Day

Some educators were worried about whether or not students would keep their masks on all day. With a classroom of 30 kids, how can you ensure they keep their masks on and wear them correctly? However, the right lessons and class discussions can make mask-wearing fun — or at least tolerable. 

For example, you can find ways to turn mask-making and mask-wearing into a game. Christopher Willard, psychologist, faculty at Harvard Medical School and author of “The Breathing Book,” recommends adding a superhero element to make masks more fun and less scary or cumbersome. 

“We too [like doctors and nurses] can be superheroes and protect other people from germs by wearing these masks for a while,” Willard says.  

Ask students to come up with superhero poses and powers to share with the class. You can also build mask-making activities into your curriculum, with masks for rainforest animals or famous people from history. 

It’s okay to express your own concerns about wearing masks with students. When done well, you can teach them how to share their feelings in a healthy way. 

“It will be particularly important for educators to share their own feelings and sensations when wearing the masks,” Lori Desautels, author of “Connections Over Compliance: Rewiring Our Perceptions of Discipline,” writes. “When we share our vulnerabilities, worries, and questions, we can sit beside our students in creating a safe, open space for them to express their concerns and worries.”

Your students have had a lot thrown at them this year, and they might understand more than you realize. Take time to address the masks that students are wearing and explain why they are important. 

If you are worried about scaring children, the team at Momentous Institute created a sample script that educators can follow (and adjust to their own needs) to help students better understand the need for masks. 

classroom safety protocols

Build Good Hand-Washing Habits

Of all the changes happening in schools this year, one hygiene practice remains constant: the need to wash your hands. Many adults received reminders this year on the correct way to wash hands and you can use your classroom to help younger kids build healthy lifelong habits.

“It’s not easy to get those little uncoordinated hands to scrub all those germs away (coronavirus and others),” Elizabeth Meade, a pediatrician and director of medical communications at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, tells the Washington Post. 

Kids have a hard time getting under their nails and knowing which parts of their hands have been washed. They might also have a hard time reaching the faucet and soap — especially when they are home and outside of a school built for kids.  

The key is to make hand washing fun and a positive part of basic hygiene. There are six recipes students can use, according to blogger Beth Gorden at 123 Homeschool 4 Me, to make mermaid soap, soap jellies, and even unicorn soap. Not only will students want to play with their creations, but they can learn to enjoy the smells and textures that come with hand washing.  

Additionally, you can make the handwashing lessons educational beyond covering COVID-19 classroom rules. The team at BrainPOP shares a few activities you can do in the classroom to highlight how important hand washing is. 

For example, teachers can ask students to design paper towel displays, soap dispensers, or even posters encouraging their peers or families to wash their hands. They can include facts about why hand-washing is important or use colors and accessories to attract people to the sink so they don’t forget. These can be displayed in the classroom or sent home for kids to remember outside of school. 

The best hand-washing lesson is the one that actually makes your students wash their hands after they go to the bathroom, before they eat, and throughout the day. 

Helping Students With Special Needs

Teaching COVID-19 classroom behavior becomes more complex when working with students with disabilities. One of the main factors is that each child reacts to various situations differently, particularly neurodiverse students. 

“People with autism have a variety of special needs and the ability to wear a mask will certainly depend on each individual and their own particular abilities,” pediatric speech-language pathologist Jenna Rayburn Kirk writes at Speech Room News. “Developmental differences in sensory processing might make fabric touching the skin, especially on the face, really uncomfortable to a person with autism…Ear straps can be equally troublesome.”

Other neurodiverse students might not mind the mask, but may have distancing problems.

“Sometimes, kids with sensory processing issues have trouble knowing where their body is in space,” the team at Understood writes as an example. “So, they can’t always tell how close they are to other people.” This makes social distancing challenging for students and teachers alike.

They recommend adding tactile elements to help students understand what standing six feet apart means. These can include wayfinding markers on the walls or textured floor squares that serve as indicators of where students should stand.   

As you get to know the needs of the students in your classroom, determine which adjustments can be made to help those with different needs to create a smoother school experience for them. 

Both students and teachers have shown their resiliency this year, from taking online classes to re-entering school in the middle of a pandemic. With the right lessons, you can guide the kids in your class to follow COVID-19 protocols and make hand-washing or mask-wearing fun. 

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