The Community Foundation of the New River Valley’s collaborative network, First Steps, hosted a Meet Yourself session focused on supporting kids during the COVID-19 pandemic, on February 24th. First Steps is a network of agencies and individuals working to support young children and families in the New River Valley. One of the goals of the network is to increase knowledge about and access to available services though an early childhood education and development information hub. This session focused on that goal, knowing that sharing information and resources is particularly important during COVID-19. To date, Meet Yourself sessions have targeted service providers and those working with children and families. This session targeted parents and the resources available to them across the region.

The event featured a panel of health and education experts, moderated by Kathryn Thompson, Director of the Radford Early Learning Center and Andi Golusky, Executive Director of NRV CARES, both on the First Steps Leadership Team. The session focused on the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of young children as we navigate the pandemic. The panelists were:

  • Rebecca Moore, NRV Community Services
  • Dr. Florence Mogen, NRV Pediatrics
  • Kate Jackson, Montgomery County Public Schools Tiered Support Systems
  • Stephanie Rupe, New River Community Action Children’s Health Improvement Partnership (CHIP)
  • Kim Hughes, Conscious Connections
  • Dr. Pam Ray, New River Health District

Supporting the Physical Health of Our Children

Dr. Mogen kicked off the session with comments on how concerns about the physical well-being of children have shifted over the course of the pandemic. In the early stages of COVID-19, there were many questions about how the virus would affect children, but concerns have now shifted to reintegration of children in school or social settings and mental health challenges. Many pediatric offices have made changes to the times of day that they see sick patients and when they hold well-visits. Even with these changes and mitigation efforts, there has been a 20% drop in child vaccination rates in the New River Valley, referring to the traditional vaccines (e.g. chicken pox, MMR) that young children receive. This is concerning for diseases like measles that we do not typically see, but could reemerge if children are not getting those vaccinations. Similarly, well-visits allow doctors to carry out developmental screenings and assess the basic health and safety of children.

Stephanie Rupe with CHIP, a program benefitting young children and their families in need, shared concerns about transportation to well visits, particularly in Giles County.  Due to the limited seats available on public transportation or free ride-share options, many parents cannot make it to well-visits with their children. CHIP caseworkers follow up with parents to promote well visits. Despite these trends, both Mogen and Rupe shared some positive developments that have come out of the pandemic, including telehealth options and decreased illness such as flu and strep this year.

Later in the session, Dr. Pam Ray, the population health coordinator for the New River Health District, provided an update on the COVID-19 vaccine. The New River Valley has prioritized teachers and child-care workers, and approximately 70% of school staff have been fully vaccinated. Parents of young children are likely not eligible for the vaccine under the current phase and CDC guidelines, but will be able to the access the vaccine in the spring or summer, depending on available supply. Children are not eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine currently, and may not be for a while, but Dr. Ray encouraged parents and guardians to be vaccinated as soon as they are eligible to protect themselves and their children. The goal of any vaccination effort is to reach herd immunity, when an estimated 75-80% of the population has been vaccinated. Until that time, Dr. Ray urged everyone, parents and children alike, to wear a mask, social distance, and wash hands often.

Supporting the Mental & Emotional Health of Our Children

Mental health has been a major area of concern for children and adults alike during COVID. Rebecca Moore of New River Valley Community Services shared that children, especially young children, tend to mimic the adults in their life. If their parents are anxious or concerned, children will adopt that mindset as well. Older children that understand more about what is happening around them are more likely to be depressed, anxious, act out and have less interest in activities.

Kate Jackson with Montgomery County Public Schools (NRVCS) shared that the school system implemented a mental health screening for students, provided resources to students who needed them, and intend to re-screen to see if there are any changes. Like many school systems, MCPS has seen an increase in D’s and F’s and in poor attendance, attributing this to mental and emotional strains and challenges with remote learning. More social, extroverted children seem to be struggling the most.  Jackson emphasized that children thrive on predictability, and she encouraged parents and guardians to maintain a routine for their children. Kim Hughes, an expert in conscious discipline techniques, added a concern about babies born just before or during COVID. Smaller children who have no siblings and are not in a day-care setting may struggle with social skills when the pandemic is over, as they have not had as many social interactions during the pandemic.

Strategies to Support Young Children

Following the discussion of physical and mental health concerns, the panelists focused on sharing specific strategies to support children during COVID. Rebecca Moore noted that children will act out more than they might have been previously. So, how can parents work to positively discipline their children? The panelists suggested:

  • Offering empathy and seeing behavior as a means of communication. What is the child missing and why do they feel a certain way?
  • Being visual when possible, have sequence, structure, and empower children to make choices when feasible.
  • Letting children know that this is hard but there are ways for them to connect with others.
  • Developing a close-knit pod with other families taking similar precautions.
  • Getting outside, and off electronics. Teach your kids “old” games such as hide-and-seek, kick the can, etc.
  • Managing ourselves as parents. Kids mimic what they are seeing. As the old saying on the airplane goes “put your mask on before helping others”.

In addition to these suggestions, the panelists discussed school re-openings and fears about children reintegrating successfully into in-person, full day school. Many children have been going to school 2-3 hours a day or virtually for the last 12 months and many sports and activities were cancelled or limited in capacity. To help children with reintegration anxiety, the panelists suggested having visual aids to help talk about the changes with children. They encouraged outdoor activities and talking with children to emphasize that just because things are opening back up, they do not have to jump right back in as if everything is back to normal. Parents should have conversations with their children to determine when it is appropriate to return to school.

Even as in-person schooling is expanding, virtual learning remains a reality for many. Some children have exceled in the virtual setting and others have struggled. The panelists provided tips and comments for parents to consider including:

  • Finding a spot free from distraction. The caretaker should also be free from distraction and engaged with the child.
  • If there are multiple children doing virtual learning in the same home, they may need to be separated.
  • Realizing that it is time consuming and tough to do virtual learning. Students in higher-education struggle with virtual learning, so it is not surprising that younger children are struggling too.
  • Being involved in your child’s academics. Communicate with teachers and stay on top of deadlines.
  • All teachers have office hours, be sure to utilize those office hours. They are there to help the child, and an additional resource, so that you do not have to be the expert.
  • PowerSchool is a resource used by MCPS that can help parents keep up with assignments and deadlines.

Finally, as the school year will be coming to a close in a few short months, panelists recommended that if your child is struggling academically, you should consider summer school. For children who have done well, the panelists encouraged kids to engage in outdoor, safe summer camps this year. Both Dr. Mogen and Dr. Ray noted that outdoor options and camps taking appropriate safety precautions are a great and safe way for children to have time with friends and make new friends.

The panelists emphasized that as parents, we are not alone. There are resources available and services to help support you and your children. Do not rely on social media as your source of news, and always check reputable sources for information. You can watch the replay of this meeting here, and check the resources that the panelists recommended here.