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My Teenager’s School is Closed Indefinitely. Now What?

On the evening of Sunday, March 8, my 16-year-old daughter Genie and I were at a local pizza joint. Just as the waiter brought our meals, both of our phones buzzed.

Schools is Closed. What Do We Do?

We checked our texts and gasped simultaneously. Due to a confirmed case of Coronavirus within our school system, all schools would be closed through the 18th, with e-learning not starting until the 16th.

Our food went cold as dozens of additional texts poured in. Everyone in town was messaging each other about the news. We all had the same reaction—Wow!—and the same question: How are we going to handle this situation?

Keeping Kids Safe, Sane, Occupied, and Educated during COVID-Related Shutdowns

It’s been a week since that night, and a new normal is slowly settling in. I’ve learned that this isn’t a time to panic, but it also isn’t wise to treat the furlough like an extended snow day. I thought I’d share how we’re getting through this exceptional time, and how you can, too, when your schools close for a while.

1. Give your teen a day to decompress.

Yes, children need routines, we all know. But news of a major school closure can really rock a child’s world.

On her first day out of school, Genie, who’s a junior, slept late, FaceTimed with her friends, stayed in pajamas most of the day, and watched TV and TikTok videos. I let her eat when she wanted. Result: She had a chance to unwind and process the shock, as well as acquaint herself with the potential upsides of having a bit less structure.

2. Next, set up a routine.

After decompression day, start to give your teen’s days a shape. “Time can kind of float by when you’re home for hours on end,” observes Wendy Nash, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute in Manhattan.

Discuss when meals will be and when screen time is allowed, and set alarms accordingly. Most importantly, have your child stick to a set bedtime and wake-up time, as it’s important for good sleep. (And when your child wakes up, have them make their bed—there is nothing that signifies structure and sanity quite like a made bed.)

3. Institute a social media schedule with fellow parents.

I’m in the process of reaching out to the moms of Genie’s pals to see if we can establish set times when the kids can e-socialize with our blessing. When everyone knows the hours, the kids won’t have an incentive to constantly check their phones in hopes someone’s on and ready to chat.

4. Encourage exercise.

While we’re all encouraged to socially distance ourselves, you and your teens can still take walks and hikes, or play a game of ball or Frisbee in the yard or nearby park. It will help maintain everyone’s physical fitness, and encourage good sleep as well.

5. Conduct regular check-ins.

If a parent can’t be home all day, establish times when you will check in with your child by phone or text. And make your rules clear, advises Dr. Nash.

Explain that there is no smoking, no drinking, and no having people over. Then perform a couple of unplanned check-ins, to make sure those rules are being followed.

6. Find educational opportunities.

Even if your school hasn’t set up e-learning yet, there are plenty of ways your teen can still get schooled. Try watching the History, Discovery, or National Geographic Channels together, and encourage your child to finish whatever book they were reading for English. There’s Khan Academy and IXL online as well, both devoted to teaching kids vital school skills.

8. Take this opportunity to teach home-based tasks.

On the third day of the school closure, Genie asked me if we could have popovers for breakfast. Instead of just making them for her, I told her we’d bake them together. I showed her how to measure flour (leveling it off by skimming a knife across the top of the measuring cup) and whisk the batter. I made her grease the muffin tins and keep an eye on the popovers as they baked.

According to Dr. Nash, I’m on the right track: “Now is a great time to teach household skills and home management,” she says. These abilities will come in handy soon enough, as our teens move on to college or living independently. Next up: I’m going to have Genie help me tackle organization projects, such as our neglected coat closet and basement.

9. Assign chores.

If your teen doesn’t already have a chores list, decide which tasks they will oversee for now. I’ve asked Genie to clear the table and unload the dishwasher after meals, and help me sort the laundry. I’ll award extra screen time if she completes these.

Chores, of course, instill a healthy sense of responsibility. And at a time like this, they help your child get into a steady daily rhythm. They can also help keep you from feeling like the housekeeper and becoming resentful!

10. Keep administering ADHD medications.

Genie doesn’t take any, but it’s a question that Dr. Nash is getting asked a lot, she says. You should speak with your doctor, but Dr. Nash recommends maintaining any existing medication regimen. “This [situation] is going to require more self-starting than ever, in a way,” she explains.

11. Model a can-do attitude.

Be subtle about your own fears and concerns, and let your children know you’re in this together. Teens pick up on your moods, so try to remain upbeat.

So far, these tips have worked out for us. I’ll be sticking to them, and relying on them more than ever this week, as Genie’s sister, Clara, joins us at home from college as well.

Deborah Skolnik

Deborah Skolnik’s work has appeared in major magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, The New York Daily News, Parents, and Good Housekeeping.

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