One important task for adults supporting young children in re-entry is to abandon the myth that children — or any of us — can be completely isolated from exposure. There is no cure for Covid-19, and no vaccine, nor is it clear when either of these might materialize. But this cannot mean that children remain isolated for months, or even years.
The perfectly secure and sanitized environment is perhaps a delusion of the elite — largely the white elite. Black families have long been compelled to weigh the realities of racist policing and other dangers against the need for children to practice independence and forge social bonds outside the home. The possibility of harm does not preclude exploration and independence; rather, it means that we take reasonable precautions, and instruct kids frankly about safety and risk.
As communities begin to open up, how might we mitigate risk of exposure to illness while allowing our children to interact with others? For some this might mean podding with another family to share in the burden of child care, socializing with friends outdoors, or simply talking excitedly with children about future social interactions.
For many of us, it may mean that we send our children back to a safety-conscious day care as soon as possible — feigning cheerful calm for our children. Recent evidence from child care centers that have remained open during the pandemic suggests that with the right precautions children are not terribly likely to be vectors of transmission to adults. We must take a harm-reduction approach toward child care, advocating for the safety of kids and adult workers, while allowing children access to the world beyond their iPads and the stressed, overworked grown-ups they’ve been living with.
It will be important for adults to give even the youngest children language for what is happening: “We haven’t been in school because we didn’t want to spread coronavirus germs. But soon we will go back to school. There still might be germs, but we are going to be very careful so that we won’t spread them.” The threat is not vague and unspeakable; it may be invisible, but it is describable and specific.
Our impulse is often to avoid giving kids potentially overwhelming information, but what we know is that a lack of explanation and communication can be quite terrifying in and of itself, leaving explanations to kids’ amateur imaginations. Language allows young children to symbolize and contain their experience, the first step to understanding and regulating emotions.
Children require repetition of news. We will find ourselves explaining again and again that Teacher Laura will be wearing a mask but that she will still be Teacher Laura, and that they really, truly, seriously, like I said yesterday, must not pick their nose.