During the new coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, many parents have questions about how to keep their children safe and healthy, said Janette Wheat, Ph.D.


Wheat is a Cooperative Extension Program specialist and associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.


Common questions include whether children can play with their friends and how they can continue learning despite school closures.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), information about COVID-19 in children is somewhat limited, but current data suggests children with COVID-19 may only have mild symptoms. However, they can still pass this virus on to others who may be at higher risk, including older adults and people who have serious underlying medical conditions.


“In light of this unique and challenging situation, individuals can benefit by learning some important dos and don’ts,” Wheat said. “For example, it is OK for children to play outdoors, but it is not the right time for them to be visiting older family members including grandparents.”


Wheat said parents can help keep their children, loved ones and others safe by following timely CDC safety tips.


While school is out, can my children hang out with their friends?


The key to slowing the spread of COVID-19 is to limit contact as much as possible, Wheat said. If play dates are set, groups should be kept as small as possible. Everyone will be at risk of infection if children meet outside of school in bigger groups.


Encourage older children to hang out in small groups and to meet outside rather than inside. It is easier to keep and maintain space between others in outdoor settings such as parks. However, make sure the parks in the area are open. If parks are closed, look for wide open spaces to meet.


When scheduling meetups, consider only meeting with friends or family members who have also been practicing social distancing by making sure to avoid contact with others.


“Whether your children are seeing their friends or not, make sure they regularly wash their hands, especially after being in a public place or after blowing their nose, coughing or sneezing,” Wheat said. “If soap and water are not readily available, they should use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.”


While school is out, how can I help my child continue learning?


Many schools are offering lessons online (virtual learning), Wheat said. Parents should review assignments from the school and help their child establish a reasonable pace for completing the work. Children may need help with turning on devices, reading instructions and typing answers.


Communicate challenges to the school. In case of technology or connectivity issues, or if children are having a hard time completing assignments, let the school know.


Create a schedule and routine for learning at home. Have consistent bedtimes, and make sure to get up at the same time Monday through Friday. Structure the day for learning, free time, healthy meals and snacks, and physical activity. But remember that it is OK to allow for flexibility in scheduling.


Consider the needs and adjustment required for the child’s age group. The transition to being at home will be different for preschoolers, K-5, middle school and high school students. Talk to children about expectations and how they are adjusting to being at home versus at school.


Look for ways to make learning fun. Plan for engaging hands-on activities such as puzzles, painting, drawing and making things.


“Independent play can also be used in place of structured learning – encourage children to build a fort from sheets or practice counting by stacking blocks,” Wheat said. “They can also practice handwriting and grammar by writing letters to family members. Other useful learning ideas include starting a journal to discuss their current experience, as well as reading books and listening to audiobooks.”


While school is out, will children have access to meals?


Wheat said parents should check with their children’s school on plans to continue meal services during the school dismissal. Many schools are keeping facilities open to allow families to pick up meals or are providing grab-and-go meals at a central location.


While school is out, how can I keep my family healthy?


First and foremost, parents should make sure all family members are practicing preventative actions (washing their hands) and watch for any signs of illness in their children. If they see any sign of illness consistent with symptoms of COVID-19, particularly fever, cough or shortness of breath, they should call their healthcare provider and keep their child at home and away from others as much as possible.


Apart from prevention of the actual virus, there are other ways parents can help ensure their children’s emotional and physical health.


Watch for signs of stress. Some common changes to watch for include excessive worry or sadness, unhealthy eating or sleeping habits and difficulty with attention and concentration.


Take time to talk with your child or teen about the COVID-19 outbreak in a way they can understand. Answer their questions and share facts from the CDC.


Keep children active. Parents should encourage their children to play outdoors for their mental and physical health. Indoor activities such as stretching or dancing can also keep children healthy and focused.


Keep children socially connected. Reach out to friends and family via phone or video chats. Write cards or letters to loved ones who children cannot currently visit.


Can children visit older family members and grandparents?


Wheat said individuals should strongly consider postponing visits to older family members and grandparents. Older adults and people who have serious underlying medical conditions have the highest risk of getting sick from COVID-19.


For a wide range of educational resources related to COVID-19, visit the CDC online at www.cdc.gov.


The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all of its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.


— Will Hehemann is a writer/editor at the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.