Ways of Successfully Transitioning to a “New Normal” for Families 

The emotional toll that the Covid-19 pandemic has taken on us is enormous. Our lives have been dragged back and forth as a result of lockdowns, social distancing, and many other social gathering limitations that have impacted every aspect of our lives, including our relationships.

Keeping physical space between people who don’t live together was critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. As governments have decided to lower the social distancing limits, returning to our daily life with a mask and unknown parameters can be stressful and anxiety-causing. 

For children and young adults especially, it’s difficult to anticipate how we’ll handle our return to in-person school following online schooling. Many of us, without a doubt, are not prepared to return, and yet here we are. Despite the fact that school systems differ from one country to another, the difficulties that children face are more or less the same around the world. Students who are returning to school this fall may be feeling the pressure, worry, stress, and anxiety that comes with the change after a lack of social contact owing to lockdowns and other restrictions. 

COVID-19 pandemic school closure and online learning have worsened some of the systemic vulnerabilities that students and families were already facing, such as poverty, displacement, and racism. Researchers report significant increases in people’s anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A recent study by Duckworth et al. (2021), found that high school students who learned remotely (regardless of gender, race, and ethnicity, or socioeconomic status) had lower levels of social, emotional, and academic well-being than students who learned in school. Moreover, returning to school also involves periodic quarantine of students if there is a confirmed case and their friends leading to isolation at home or hospitals. 

Younger children are adaptable and flexible, but attempts to safeguard their health may make new child care and school settings more difficult. If you are a parent you may be hesitant to enroll your kid(s) in an early childhood education program since you may be unable to readily visit and interact frequently with the childcare provider or teacher. 

If you are a parent of older youth, you may be more apprehensive about how your child will maintain their safety without your guidance with the current safety protocols in the school. You may also be concerned regarding how your child will adapt to a newer school environment with distancing in the classroom and limited social opportunities with peers. 

So, how do we cope as a parent and a child during this return to school phase of their lives? Good stress management techniques and practices can be highly beneficial in this scenario to prepare for these stressful and uncertain times. 

Establish better communication

We have a tendency to mentally navigate our anxieties in isolation. One of the most beneficial strategies is to communicate how we cope with uncomfortable emotions with others. This can be done as a daily ritual during dinner time or having a good discussion or as you are getting ready to put your child to bed. Encourage your children with positive remarks (such as “I am so glad that you shared that with me”) when they share their feelings or emotional experiences with you. This will create a positive association with communication. 

Tiny techniques of tackling stress 

There are many small ways that you and your loved ones can manage daily stress. The easiest of all is taking a deep breath, counting down from 10 to 1, or going for a quick sip of water, doodling, playing with your pet, watching a light-hearted television, listening to a piece of soothing music, engaging in hobbies, learning something new.

Get moving

 Educate children on ways they can still enjoy playtime and peer engagement during this transitional phase. Play and exercise are crucial parts of a child’s development. Make sure that your children are receiving opportunities and dedicated times to engage in these forms of activities. You can also engage them in exploration to various outdoor venues such as state parks and hiking trails. 

Power of Now

Most of our lives we spend either ruminating past experiences or worrying about the future when our true existence is in fact the “now”. When we are experiencing the present moment we are most engaged with our thoughts, emotions, surroundings, and people. Research has proven that mindfulness practice can be highly effective in bringing present moment awareness and even managing our stress. When we are faced with uncertainty, I believe that mindfulness practices can assist us in feeling more grounded, calm, and in the present moment. To learn more about various mindfulness practices, you can visit this website “link”.

A pool of research has shown its benefits in various areas and psychologists have found how mindfulness practice improves both mental and physical health. For adults, mindfulness practice has emerged as an effective method to manage stress, anxiety, depression, and work productivity. For children, it helps with stress, anxiety, improving focus and emotional regulation.  Mindfulness practices entail paying attention with your mind and body to the current moment and accepting your experiences and emotions without judgment. 

Ways to teach mindfulness to children

  1. Breathing exercise with a toy (breathing bear)
  2. Engage children in an art activity 
  3. Slow stretches 
  4. Visual imagery practice 
  5. Spidey senses 
  6. Glitter jar activity
  7. Gratitude practice like naming three daily good things before bed

 Isn’t it amazing how merely tuning into your thoughts and feelings can have such a great impact on your entire body? According to the researchers, it is believed that the benefits of mindfulness are tied to its ability to reduce the body’s response to stress, therefore with worries about sickness, finances, and isolation, coping with grief from loss.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused worldwide trauma for the whole of humanity. The slow and steady transition is much harder than anticipated. We are still struggling to find a balance between the safety of our family and the need for social connections. This transition is uncertain but filled with the hope of going back towards “normal”. The only assurance we have is to take care of ourselves and our families during these unknown times. The techniques suggested here are a few of the many you can try to aspire to and create healthier, happier, and resilient lives for your families and communities.   

This blog written by Thoinu Karam, Family and Consumer Sciences intern.

The Truth About COVID-19 Vaccinations

At the University of Maryland Extension we support and provide science-based solutions for everyday problems, including public health information. As COVID-19 vaccinations are rolled out across the country, we are encouraging Marylanders to take action.

With the vaccinations have also come rumors and myths about its effectiveness and how it may affect the public. In light of the misinformation coming through outlets like social media, we have created a COVID-19 vaccination information page to provide factual information.

A doctor placing a bandage on the injection site of a patient. Original image sourced from US Government department: Public Health Image Library, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you’ve heard from your brother-in-law’s uncle’s second cousin that vaccines are being used to microchip people or that it may alter your DNA, please don’t listen to them. Find information from trusted and reputable sources, talk with your family physician, get your facts before making decisions.

Because the truth is, COVID-19 vaccinations are safe and effective, and they may save your life.

To find a vaccination clinic near you, check out our state and local resource page.

Safe Celebrations for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the start of the most wonderful time of the year – but this year it looks a bit different. 

Traditional Thanksgiving gatherings with family and friends are always the best, but this year can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu. Obviously, the safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is to celebrate with people in your household. If you do plan to spend Thanksgiving with people outside your household, take steps to make your celebration safer.

Attending a Gathering

Make your celebration safer. In addition to following the steps that everyone can take to make Thanksgiving safer like washing hands properly, take these additional steps while attending a Thanksgiving gathering.

  • Bring your own food, drinks, plates, cups, and utensils.
  • Wear a mask, and safely store your mask while eating and drinking.
  • Avoid going in and out of the areas where food is being prepared or handled, such as the kitchen.
  • Use single-use options, like salad dressing and condiment packets, and disposable items like food containers, plates, and utensils.

Hosting a Thanksgiving Gathering

If having guests to your home, be sure that people follow the steps that everyone can take to make Thanksgiving safer. Other steps you can take include:

  • Have a small outdoor meal with family and friends who live in your community.
  • Limit the number of guests.
  • Have conversations with guests ahead of time to set expectations for celebrating together.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and items between use.
  • If celebrating indoors, make sure to open windows and provide ventilation.
  • Limit the number of people in food preparation areas.
  • Have guests bring their own food and drink.
  • If sharing food, have one person serve food and use single-use options, like plastic utensils.

Consider Other Thanksgiving Activities

  • Host a virtual Thanksgiving meal with friends and family who don’t live with you
    • Schedule a time to share a meal together virtually.
    • Have people share recipes and show their turkey, dressing, or other dishes they prepared.
  • Watch television and play games with people in your household
    • Watch Thanksgiving Day parades, sports, and movies at home.
    • Find a fun game to play.
  • Shopping
    • Shop online sales the day after Thanksgiving and the days leading up to the winter holidays.
    • Use contactless services for purchased items, like a curbside pick-up.
    • Shop in open-air markets staying 6 feet away from others.

Don’t forget to practice gratitude this Thanksgiving, especially if you and your family are healthy and well! 

Blog contributed by Morgan Page (’21), University of Maryland College of Arts and Humanities

Coping is Not a Race

You Cannot “Win” at Mental Health in 2020

We have all been trying to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic now for seven months. Every day we have experiences that we must try to fit into a larger story about how we wish to emerge on the other side of this crisis. Some of us may use the analogy that coping with the pandemic and 2020, in general, is a marathon, not a sprint. However, the notion that any of this is a race at all needs to be dispelled.

One of the biggest challenges in responding to the slew of losses and uncertainty that has characterized 2020 has been to find meaning in it all. Meaning-making is an essential task of coping with loss, and it is one that is often glossed over. Furthermore, meaning-making (and coping with loss in general) is an ongoing process.

Mental health gained a huge amount of attention this year. As quickly as news spread about the pandemic, social scientists began predicting a spike in mental health needs. This was helpful in that it reduced the stigma of having public discussions on coping with mental health issues. We have seen friends, family, even celebrities share what they have done to cope. Sharing our stories of resilience with others is a normal and necessary part of making meaning.

The stories of resilience have been broad and inspiring. Some found meaning in developing new skills while at home. Some have turned to more regular exercise or meditation. Others have found meaning in simply embracing the slowness of spending more time at home. Perhaps you have encountered these stories in your social media feeds or Zoom calls with friends.

Photo by Madison Inouye on Pexels.com

Witnessing others’ “winning” at resilience might inspire you, or it could make you feel like what you have been doing is not enough. It might even feel like you are losing some kind of race to the imaginary finish line of emotional stability. If you find yourself feeling behind, it is time for two quick reminders about coping with loss.

  1. Other people’s stories deserve validation and praise, but they are not goal markers for anyone else’s progress. Only you can tell the story of what resilience looks like for you. In figuring that story out, a therapist can help, but so can a friend or understanding family member. The key is to keep talking.
  2. Resolving the feelings associated with loss is not a linear process. It is normal to not have a straight line of improvement when experiencing such significant, ongoing losses as many of us have during 2020.

Take these reminders as a nudge toward self-compassion. You have to forgive yourself for not following a straight line to recovery. A focus on self-blame and comparison to others will only interrupt the process of finding meaning and a story that carries you through the stressful days that are ahead.

Special guest post by Alexander Chan, Behavioral Health Specialist with the University of Maryland Extension.

Important information for student loan borrowers during COVID-19

The CARES Act provides automatic suspension of principal and interest payment on federally held student loans through September 30, 2020. An Executive Order directs the Department of Education to extend these benefits until December 31, 2020.

Important facts about student loans

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com
  • The interest and monthly payments on federally held loans are suspended through September 30, 2020.  
  • Consumers do not need to contact their student loan servicer or take any action on federally held student loans.  
  • Make sure the servicer has up-to-date contact information and check your mail or email in order to receive any updates or information about your loans.
  • Suspended payments through September 30, 2020 will count towards any student loan forgiveness program, as long as all other requirements of the loan forgiveness program are met.  

How do I know if I qualify?

The student loan payment and interest suspension only applies to federal student loans held by the Department of Education. Some federal student loans under the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program are owned by commercial lenders and some Perkins Loans are held by the institution or school you attended. Your FFEL lender or school may choose to suspend interest and payments on a voluntary basis, but they are not required by law to do so.  If you need more information contact your servicer to find out if these options are available to you. Use the link https://studentaid.gov/manage-loans/repayment/servicers to see the list of federal student loan servicers. 

What should I do if I have federally-held student loans?

You don’t need to take any action.  From March 13 through September 30, 2020, the interest rate is set to 0% and payments are suspended for student loans owned by the federal government.  It is suggested, however, to make payments or continue making payments on your student loans, if you are financially able to do so.  Any payments you make after March 13 have been applied directly to principal. By doing this it will help pay off your loan faster.  

Student Loan Debt, Education, College

What should I do if my student loan is already in default? 

The CARES Act requires the Department of Education to stop the collection of defaulted federal student loans, including garnishment of wages and the offset of tax refunds and Social Security benefits, through September 30, 2020.  There is no additional action required from the consumer for federally owned loans. Contact your loan holder to find out about your options regarding other defaulted federal loans you may have. Use this link https://studentaid.gov/manage-loans/default/get-out to learn how to get out of default.   

What should I do if I have private student loans?

Many private lenders have already implemented forbearance options that allow borrowers to postpone monthly payments.  Some of the private lenders also are waiving late fees and will not file negative reports to consumer reporting agencies.  Additionally, private lenders also offer their own reduced payment options.  Contact your student loan servicer to find out what is available to you. 

Help, I’m Homeschooling, or Schooling at Home! (Part 2)

Who would have guessed that when schools shut down this past March, they would be shut for the remainder of the school year? Fast forward several months, and most are not re-opening in-person this fall.  Administrators and teachers are doing their best to provide a safe and nurturing environment for the children amidst a pandemic which will keep most students learning remotely. But what about parents? Other than maintaining a sense of humor, what are some of the considerations as the new school year begins? 

For most families, this means schooling at home. The children remain enrolled at their current school.  Parents are receiving guidance from their county district, school, and teachers. Students receive materials and take lessons online with their teachers.

Are you homeschooling? Technically, no. Your child’s school or district is responsible for providing the curricula, teaching, and record keeping. Most Maryland school districts are still providing meals for eligible students, and devices for children who need them. 

One of the most challenging aspects for many families is space for each child to attend class and complete assignments. It is helpful for each child to have a designated “school space.” It does not need to be set up like a classroom, and it might have to be transitioned into the meal room in the evening, but having a special space, equipped with necessary supplies, will help your child maintain focus and a sense of normalcy. A private area might be unachievable, but a simple partition made of three taped file folders could create a similar feel. There are many other tips on time and family management as well as emotional wellbeing in my earlier article.

However, one of the greatest needs right now is grace – for yourself, for your children, and for your children’s teachers and school. COVID has added unanticipated challenges requiring adaptation from all.   

What is homeschooling then and how is it different? Homeschooling means the child has been unenrolled from school.  Many parents are making the choice to homeschool their children, but there are many important factors to consider:

  • Notification – Families must notify their child’s school at least 15 days before switching to homeschooling.
  • Responsibility – According to Maryland law, parents must “provide regular, thorough instruction in the studies usually taught in the public schools to children of the same age.” This does not mean you need to use the same materials. There are myriad curricula options for purchase.
  • Finances – Switching to homeschooling means the family becomes responsible for all costs, including books and materials, software, and more. Usually, children can no longer participate in school activities or receive school related services such as lunch services. 
  • Organization – Families must maintain a portfolio of their child’s work, submit to an annual review by either the school system or an approved homeschool umbrella program, record grades, and issue graduation diplomas. 

What steps should families take who are considering the option of homeschooling? 

  1. First is to read the code of Maryland as it pertains to homeschooling. It is not long, and it describes the state’s and the parent’s responsibilities.
  2. Second is to research the pros and cons.  A helpful resource is the Maryland Homeschool Association (MDHSA).
  3. Finally, connect with experienced families. They can answer questions about curriculum, socialization, and much more.  MDHSA provides a listing of local groups and resources. 

Indoor Air Quality and COVID

We have all had to learn new things — social distancing, face covering protocols, staying at home — during this pandemic and the research and health community is no exception. In fact, they are continually discovering novel things about COVID and how to protect public health.

Transmission of the COVID virus is thought to be mainly from person-to-person contact through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing, and talking which enter the lungs. The six-foot social distancing that we are all familiar with has been a mainstay precautionary practice to reduce the spread of the virus. However, new research shows that the six-foot distance may actually not be adequate to prevent exposure in indoor settings.

Numerous studies show that microdroplets (essentially aerosols) can stay suspended in the air much longer than previously thought, travel more than six feet, and circulate in rooms. The new research suggests that wearing facemasks in public buildings, offices, etc. maybe a prudent precaution. Further, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems can move and recirculate these microdroplets (~ 1 micron in size), and therefore filtration is recommended. Filtration will not eliminate all risk of transmission of airborne particulates, since several other factors influence disease transmission, but is one tool in addition to facemasks and handwashing to reduce risk.

CDC, EPA and ASHRAE provides some practical guidelines to management of indoor air quality: 

  • Using a minimum of a 13 Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) HVAC filter. This level can capture up to 85% of particles 1-3 microns in size. These filters are the pleated kind and can be purchased online or at some hardware/box stores, (though often they only sell MERV 12 or lower). Note: These filters reduce air flow slightly and must be replaced every three months to make sure they don’t get clogged to where air flow is restricted possibly damaging the system
  • Maintain the fan component of the HVAC system to run 24/7. Most thermostats allow for that option. Simply turn the fan from auto to on
  • If weather and temperature conditions permit consider increasing fresh airflow from outside
  • Consider using a portable room air cleaner a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) room filter or. This may be especially a wise practice if someone has been sick. A HEPA filter (equivalent to > MERV 16) will provide up to 99% capture of the virus droplets.

Being safe during this pandemic has adjusted our lifestyle and practices, and we need to remain diligent and adaptable to minimize risks. Indoor air quality is yet another important consideration to protect your health.

A Family Routine for Your Child’s Well-Being

The evolving COVID-19 pandemic poses an ongoing threat to what is normal in children’s lives. Many have experienced upsets in routines related to school, changes to summer plans, and even family traditions. 

Leaders of children’s organizations around the world agree that focusing on having and keeping routines is a necessary part of family well-being during and after a crisis. Routines provide a sense of life being normal, and help children manage their feelings throughout the day. For adults, routines contribute to a sense of shared purpose and identity. 

Research suggests that children may gain security and positive well-being out of the spontaneous moments of being together. Those moments can happen during ordinary, daily routines such as doing chores together. Family routines are an important part of coping with challenging situations. Examples of family routines include consistent meals, bedtimes, and recreation. 

4 Basic Routines for Children’s Well-being 

What can we do to help our children? 

You can use the following four questions to rate the quality and consistency of your family’s routines: 

Do we do the same thing every morning during the work week? 

Ensuring that wake-up times and morning routines are consistent sets the tone for the day. Adequate nutrition in the morning should be considered in the morning routine. 

Do we eat at the same time each day? 

Sharing consistent mealtimes together can help the family improve communication, discuss upcoming plans, and spend quality time with one another.  

Are there consistent routines related to chores? 

Doing chores may not seem like quality time. However, when done consistently as part of a family routine, chores provide another context for quality moments to arise like jokes and games while folding laundry together. 

Do children have special things they do or ask for every night at bedtime?

Nighttime rituals may not be conducive to a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Make sure you are sensitive to what each child finds comforting or soothing as part of a nighttime routine. Being able to change routines to suit children’s unique needs is an important skill. 

If your answers to the four questions left you thinking, we can do better or do more to support our children, good. But, starting and maintaining routines can be challenging. So, think about these actions to get going. 

Steps in Starting and Keeping Routines 

  1. Before making changes, talk to your family about how well the current routines are working.
  2. Listen to everyone. 
  3. Agree to a new routine that everyone is willing to try. 
  4. Talk over what each person is expected to do. 
  5. Give the new routine a try. 
  6. Talk again about how well the routine is working and make adjustments if needed 
  7. Repeat to work on another routine until you have worked on all four. 

Work schedules, extended family obligations, and other external pressures can interfere with the consistency of routines even when your family wants to have regular routines. Just remember that every action you take toward quality and consistency of family routines will help your children cope with their feelings that arise when they experience stress. 

It may be hard for your family to find large enough blocks of time for family game nights, movies, special outings, or other activities. If that’s true for your family, the four daily routines provide many opportunities for children to experience quality moments with the family. 

Even if your family experiences chaos or uncertainty, routines can help your children manage their feelings and behavior more effectively. Daily routines work because when children believe that their environment is comforting, safe, and predictable, they are more likely to show resilience during stressful times. 

This article written by Alexander Chan, special guest blogger