School in 2020

Fall 2020 is a new back-to-school season for many, with a mixture of virtual, in-person and hybrid learning. As parents and students navigate these new changes, we speak to Children’s Hospital & Medical Center’s educators, Peggy Smith and Margaret McCawley, about how you can help your child be productive and kick off a successful season of learning.

Topic Breakdown

1:57 – From pre- COVID-19 to today: The role of school liaisons at Children’s
4:20 – Making the right choice for your family
5: 24 – Acknowledging stress and anxiety
7:27 – Advice for teaching young children at home
9:50 – Advice for teaching older students
15:18 — Rethinking school rather than recreating it: structure, routine, and boundaries
19:01 — Separating school time from home time
20:36 — Not all children are comfortable being on camera
21:45 – Social-emotional learning when learning from home
26:06 – Rethinking academic support
31:50 – Advocating for your child — and yourself


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Fall 2020 is a new back-to-school season for many, with a mixture of virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning. As parents and students navigate these new changes, we speak to Children’s Hospital & Medical Center’s educators, Peggy Smith and Margaret McCawley, about how you can help your child be productive and kick off a successful season of learning.

Peggy Smith: My name is Peggy Smith and I am one of the hospital teachers and school liaisons here at Children’s. I have been here for about 7 years. I love my job. I love helping my patients and families with school, and helping them take a piece of what’s on their plate off their plate so they can focus on their child when they’re here.

I taught elementary school for 10 years. I taught 3rd grade and 4th grade and absolutely loved it. I taught in Urbandale, Iowa, and then I stayed at home for about 10 years to raise my three kids, and then I came back to Children’s.

Margaret McCawley: I’m Margaret McCawley. I started teaching in Iowa, moved to Wisconsin for a couple years, and then moved back to Iowa. Altogether I have about 10 years of teaching experience. I taught in the high school, primarily 10th and 12th grade, in English. And then when we moved to Omaha, I found this opportunity. So I’ve been working here for about a year now.

From pre- COVID-19 to today: The role of school liaisons at Children’s

Peggy: Well, we’re here to talk about school and rethinking school, and this is definitely a time in which we need to do that. But we want to kind of just let you know what our job looked like before COVID hit. Pre-COVID is, I think, what everybody is referring to that time as.

Before COVID impacted every part of everyone’s life, we were essentially coming alongside families in the hospital, school-age patients, K-12, to support them. In that role, we did a lot of advocating for their educational needs. We did a lot of providing support. We would request support from schools. That could look like anything from homebound instruction to online learning. We requested a lot of online learning, technology support, access to school platforms.

Now, I think we find ourselves in this place of discovering, as Margaret and I — or as you and I — go through meeting our families, we’ve discovered that the main need families have is for in-person, face-to-face support. It’s that human connection of a real live person being there for you to help you with school, whether you’re a high schooler or a kindergartener or a 7th grader. That seems to be the piece that’s missing that’s most important. That connection.

Margaret: Right. Today, what our purpose is, is to help support families and students by offering some advice as far as how we can approach educating our children in this exceedingly unique time. And understanding that each of the needs of our students is unique, just as they are, with our patients in the hospital.

So whether that be remote learning, hybrid learning, in-person learning — I’m sure we’re all experiencing a lot of flux in terms of how our schools decide to categorize our education at the moment. Hopefully today we’ll be able to offer some advice that you can use in some way or find helpful.

Making the right choice for your family

Peggy:I think we — you know, you and I have talked about that it’s difficult to offer advice in this time, because the context of what’s happening now in schools is so varied and different. It’s changing daily. School plans are changing daily, from being 100% in-person to 100% online to a combination. And it’s just — it’s a difficult time to offer advice.

Because really, the most important thing I think we agree on, is that we want to encourage parents to make the safe choice. The smart choice for their family. And what’s right for someone’s family might not be right for another’s. And so giving parents that permission to do what they feel is best based upon the options they have.

Margaret: I like that you said “safe” choice, and not the “right” choice. Because you’re right. It does depend on your specific circumstances and situation.

Acknowledging stress and anxiety

Margaret: I think it’s important as we start to talk about school and parents’ roles in school this year — it’s important to acknowledge the level of stress and anxiety that we are all under.

Peggy: Absolutely.

Margaret: I listened to — I think it was a Facebook Live that Children’s did with Dr. Stoolman, the hospitalist at Children’s — she was amazing. And she — the person interviewing her, Sarah Weller — said that some of us are experiencing anxiety. And she cracked at her and said, “No, all of us are.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s just so powerful to acknowledge it and to verbalize it.” So before we even talk about school, it’s important to just be aware — I guess, and acknowledge, that that’s a real component that affects everyone.

Peggy: You make a good point. Dr. Stoolman made an excellent point. All of us are experiencing anxiety. But what that anxiety can come from is so many things right now. Loss of control, loss of feeling safe, fear of the unknown. And fear of getting sick. That literally didn’t occur to me that there might be kids being afraid of getting sick.

Margaret: Right.

Peggy: And so we started having this conversation. You know, kids are afraid because they’re distanced from their peer relationships, so that support layer is not as concrete as it used to be. It’s kind of like 100% social media. Because it’s all virtual. We have to acknowledge all those things — you’re right, anxiety — but there are so many things that families are dealing with. A lot of families have suffered the loss of a loved one or financial hardship…illness…there’s a lot going on and we just need to stop and take a breath before we talk about school.

Advice for teaching young children at home

Margaret: I’ve had very little experience talking — excuse me, teaching — little ones. I have three young children at home and I was with them in the spring when COVID hit, after spring break. I found that incredibly overwhelming to take on teaching my preschooler, having just experience in high school. So Peggy, I’m going to need to lean on you in terms of tips that parents might want to keep in mind as they approach teaching their young ones. What would you say are some highlights as far as teaching little ones?

Peggy: Well, that’s my background, is elementary. And so everything I’ve ever done with elementary kids, I’ve tried to make hands-on. I’ve tried to make it very concrete. I’ve done that through a lot of different ways. You know, kids learn by doing. They learn by watching other people, watching processes. They learn by writing, they learn by listening, by speaking, by counting, by moving, by building. It’s all under that umbrella of “doing.”

There’s so much to be said for the in-person piece for little kids. It’s super hard to even wrap my head around how that’s going to look virtually. And not — this isn’t to criticize anybody or anything — but I think others are struggling to make that concrete for kids as well.

I recently received some school support papers that were intended to help a patient who was a kindergarten/first-grader. Well, they’re doing it virtually. This child can’t read. They can’t read the directions at the top and do what they’re supposed to do. So in that case, you’re looking at the parent having to put 100% of their time into…

Margaret: Wow.

Peggy: …walking them through school. And so, it’s everybody rethinking outside of all the boxes.

Margaret: Right.

Advice for teaching older students

Peggy: Now, while my experiences with elementary kids in the classroom as a teacher, as a parent — my COVID experience has been with my three college kids. And, you know, it’s interesting. They’ve gone through a different experience than what I’ve gone through as a teacher. We talked about things like loss.

My kids — as I watched them get sent home from college, pack their things, and walk away from an entire semester — they were angry. They were struggling and they were — I watched them walk through the process of grief. And they’re grieving the loss of independence, they’re grieving the fact that they have to move home and live with their parents again. I, of course, was celebrating, but…but it’s that loss of community, that loss of network, support networks. And I think, you know, you and I felt that a little bit when we were both at home and not working together. It was hard for me. So tell me about your experience teaching older kids. What is that like?

Margaret: Yeah, I absolutely loved it. I think that if people are discouraged with the state of the world, to become a high school teacher. Because I found so much hope in that.

Peggy: I love that.

Margaret: And I think too that they’re in a very unique and precarious situation in that I was looking at the CDC’s website to prepare for today and see what they had to recommend for school. I think it was there, I don’t want to miscredit it. But they said that if you as a parent have multiple children, to focus your attention on the little ones and then trust that the older ones can handle it. I’m pretty sure it even said “can handle it.”

But I think that there is temptation to think that they’ve got it under control, they’re used to technology so they can be self-functioning. And while that is very true that a 10th grader would be more equipped to self-regulate than my preschooler, it is so important to acknowledge that they still are developmentally…I don’t know if “reliant” is the right word — but they do depend on their adult figures to step in and advocate and check in on them. Because my experience as a high school teacher is that they are so independent and they’re exploring this newfound independence, but still dependent on the adults around them for direction and interaction and collaboration.

As a high school teacher, I guess those are the key pieces that I would take away from that. There are so many — if you have a child that’s in high school, as you already know, there are so many resources available online. Sparknotes, Google.

Peggy: Right.

Margaret: There are so many out there. Khan Academy. And these are really great tools. But I taught English, and I would always tell my kids, you know, “Sparknotes is a great tool, but it’s not a replacement. If you’re not understanding something, there are things to help you.”

And same goes for the parent. If you’re not understanding something, there are resources out there for you.

Peggy: So I think we’re both at the place where we find ourselves in this imperfect time and imperfect situation. I think we need to take what we’ve learned and apply it. So many parents are struggling to help their kids. To know how to help their kids with school. They’re struggling with their own job if they’re doing their job from home. If they have to go to work, they’re struggling to find someone to be at home with their kids. There’s just — there’s all kinds of scenarios. What we need to acknowledge is that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. That’s the reality right now. Everybody is uncomfortable. And it’s not just parents. It’s teachers who are having to do Zoom or another electronic virtual school platform. Maybe they’re not tech-savvy. Everybody’s kind of outside their comfort zone here, and I think probably the least equipped are kids, are students.

Margaret: Yeah.

Peggy: It’s especially important to pay attention to them. I learned that — you were talking about your experience with older kids and I had mentioned earlier that my kids were struggling with coming home — I was processing __ my daughter a few weeks ago and she said, “Mom, I was actually legit depressed.” I was like, “Oh my word, I did not know that.” And I think I took for granted that those kids can go off on their own. You know, “You’re a college student, you got this, go to your room and do your college classes online” — that was really hard for them. I underestimated that. And I felt really bad. But I learned something.

Margaret: You were doing the best you could at the time, too. They were doing the best they could and you were too.

Peggy: Yeah, and that’s what we want to tell parents.

Rethinking school rather than recreating it: structure, routine, and boundaries

Margaret: I need, as an individual, action items. What can I do now that we have this unique situation? As Peggy and I were thinking about this as teachers, I came across this National Teacher of the Year — think it was 2010 or 11 — her name’s Sarah Brown Wessling. And in an interview, she encouraged parents, “Don’t try to recreate school. Rethink what it can look like for your child and family.” And I thought that was so powerful.

We as parents don’t need to feel this pressure to recreate school. But instead, rethink it. And that’s so helpful. So, when we were thinking about this, what is it that school offers our kids that is so important that we need to take with us but not try to recreate? And rethink it? One of the first things we identified is that school offers our kids structure and routine. That every day they know what to expect down to the minute, is what that structure that school provides for them.

So, how can we recreate, as parents, what that structured routine looks like? I guess one piece that came to mind for me was building a routine. Even as an adult — you mentioned that your young adult children miss this. Even as an adult, I crave routine. The spring was super hard for me. And one of the reasons I think — there’s so much unknown, but then you get thrown into no routine at all. And just the unknown and uncertainty is very hard. So we encourage you in some way to find ways to build a routine, and we’ll kind of touch on this a little bit later, too.

Peggy: Yeah, and another thing we talked about being beneficial is building in brain breaks. That’s just what we have read about and that’s how they call them. That’s what they call them and what we read about, but you can call them whatever you want.

But I think what we want parents to understand is that they need to be intentional about carving out that time. Setting those boundaries to say, “This is school time, from this time to this time. From this time to this time we’re going to take a break. It’s going to be this long. This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to either have lunch or we’re going to go for a walk or we’re going to…”

Just build in a break where they can go do whatever they want. But they need to know that they’re going to get a break. They need to see a light at the end of the tunnel when they sit down for the day.

I think it’s really important to note that boundaries are put in place to protect what is valuable. They’re not put in place to control or punish, but to protect what is valuable. It’s that time, the downtime if you will, that’s valuable. It’s the routine that’s valuable. It’s all of those things that you talked about, in terms of structure of the day. That’s what’s valuable and that’s why boundaries are so helpful.

Margaret: That’s a really thought-provoking way to phrase that. I like that a lot. So kind of going off of boundaries — what came to mind for me is that when I was working from home with three children under the age of 4 (well, I guess my oldest is 5 now) that boundaries were almost impossible for me to maintain. I kind of imagine that a lot of parents felt that way. That school — or not school, at this point for me it would be work at Children’s, kind of bled into my home life, which bled back into work. And then it kind of felt never-ending, which kind of added to a level of stress and anxiety.

Separating school time from home time

Margaret: For our students and our patients, it is so important for them to be able to say, “I’m not walking out of that door at 3:05 to go home,” but there needs to be some sort of separation. Your routine from, “Okay, now I’m done with school time and I’m working my way back into some home time.” I don’t know, watching TV, or whatever that boundary looks like for you kind of depends upon your children’s age. Finding a way to designate school day vs. workday. That could help to decrease some anxiety.

Peggy: Exactly, that’s exactly what I was going to say. That’s one way we can help our kids, is putting boundaries in place to reduce anxiety.

Margaret: But kind of going off on that — in terms of separating work from school proverbially, I’ve also reached out to some teacher friends and asked for some advice that they would give based on their experience from last spring. A lot mentioned that the physical location of school, “school,” is important to consider.

So, if you’re setting up school in your kitchen, maybe you literally step away from the kitchen and have some family time out on your porch or in a bedroom or, I don’t know, wherever. Just to kind of give your mind that mental cue that you need in school in a new space, and maybe can leave school behind for a little bit.

Peggy: Yeah, and they need to learn to be good advocates for themselves in the older grades. They’re growing into young adults. And I try to do that with all kids that you and I work with. Just to encourage them, because there’s so much going on in their life.

Not all children are comfortable being on camera

Peggy: We have kids at the hospital or are in clinic who — maybe they’ve lost their hair, or maybe their shirt is off and they have an infusion going on. They don’t want to be on screen. There’s plenty of other acceptable reasons to not want to be on screen.

Margaret: Right. Yeah, I was looking — helping this, supporting a patient and looking at their new schedule. They’re learning remotely and they do have so much throughout their day that’s devoted to being on Zoom and points are attached to attendance via Zoom.

So you bring up a really good point, that yes, that is a reality. But we also need to acknowledge that not every kid is comfortable or maybe able for whatever reason — medical or personal — to, I don’t know, to attend or be present on Zoom. So those are some points to consider as far as rethinking the structure and the routine that we’re presented with today. How we can rethink it and adapt it to whatever your family’s reality is.

Social-emotional learning when learning from home

Margaret: Something else that schools provide, kind of in that similar vein — schools provide kids with a sense of security. And this, arguably, is one of the most challenging parts of this COVID isolation that we’re faced with — is that social, emotional aspect. Most kids and adults, I think, are experiencing what isolation does to them.

But I guess — when I was doing some research on the really thought-provoking thought. And I’m going to share it, if that’s okay. “It’s important to acknowledge that anxiety students might be feeling — chronic stress and trauma can interrupt the learning process. You can help by incorporating social-emotional learning. Social-emotional learning can help steer students to ultimately learn better.”

And so at school, if students were able to physically be there, they’d have so many resources to help them with developing that social-emotional learning that is preferred, to your guidance counselors, your school psychologists, nurses, teachers.

Peggy: Peers.

Margaret: Peers, absolutely. Yeah. That’s a really good point. We’re not going to have face-to-face access to that necessarily. I mean, you can Zoom, but that physical interaction, you won’t necessarily have. At least for a little while. But as parents, we can rethink how we can provide those supports to our kids while they’re home with us.

Peggy: And that’s a — you make a really good point about their support network at school. And I saw that with my college kids. They lost their whole support network. All their clubs, all their committees, all their classmates. It’s a really big piece that you’re pretty much taking away. The structure in their world.

Margaret: Yeah, so I actually have some friends who are yoga teachers and instructors. I have one friend in particular whose curriculum — she’s participating in developing — this being adopted by school districts in her area. And I — one of, as far as asking her, “How do — how would I support social-emotional well-being in my children, in my own children and students?”

She offered some really interesting, helpful advice about practicing mindfulness as a way that we as parents can support our kids from home. That maybe is a buzzword, but also could be something that we make super simple. Break it down to encouraging our kids to feel what they’re feeling. It could — just helping your kid process their emotion, whatever that looks like. If that’s a simple check-in. Maybe that’s the way that your family operates. Or a more formal conversation is appropriate. Breathing exercises, practicing meditation. There’s lots of different ways to help kids be aware of what they’re feeling. Acknowledge it. Kind of what we mentioned earlier. And then using that as a way to help them to feel socially-emotionally supported.

Peggy: Yes, and I think we have to address — intentionally address — their emotions with them and help them process their emotions, like you said. Some of the simplest ways I’ve heard to do that, that anybody can do, is to say, “What was good today? What was good about your school time or your virtual learning today? And what was hard today?” And then processing those, why it was hard, what can you do to minimize that. Or what was good, and how can we incorporate more of that into your learning.

I always think of Fred Rogers. With COVID-19, it brings him to mind. He always said, “look for the helpers.” So if we can find a way to help our kids think of a way to be a helper in this time, I think that that helps them look outside of themselves and empower them and help them feel like maybe they can make a difference in a pandemic. If you can make a difference on a regular day, it’s good. But during a pandemic, where your whole world has been redefined, that’s going to be a pretty powerful memory for them.

Rethinking academic support

Margaret: In that same vein of rethinking school and not recreating, the last piece that we had thought about in terms of offering support to families, would be to rethink what academics without the academic support looks like. And again, rethinking — not recreating — this is perhaps the most stressful for parents. I don’t want to overstep, because I don’t have any kids who are older. Would you say that that is true for you, Peggy?

Peggy: Yes, absolutely. It’s tricky.

Margaret: Yeah.

Peggy: I want to be respectful, but I want to support and encourage at the same time.

Margaret: Right, yeah. So what I would say — I’m trying to think of it as like, if I were still teaching my 12th graders and helping their support to support them, teachers are not asking parents to come up with a new curriculum entirely. Teachers are sending you the curriculum, they’re sending their students the curriculum and asking them to execute it.

As I said before, I reached out to a lot of friends who are teaching right now and taught during the spring and the pandemic. And the biggest piece of advice that they had was to ask questions. That they would much rather ask parents come forward and say, “You know what, this piece of what you asked me to do or asked my child to do doesn’t make sense to me. Can you explain further?” or, “Can you please give me some resources to clarify?” rather than just keeping on with the learning and not understanding these pieces along the way.

Margaret: Another piece that can help your family to rethink what school looks like — and this would probably be my biggest piece of advice — would be to invest in some sort of visible schedule to keep track of everything. I’ve worked with a couple patients who are in a school district that’s teaching remotely and they have these Zoom schedules that are so demanding. Where from X time to the next time they’re in this class, then they have some free time. But as a parent, I’d want to know what time is devoted to which class, when do you have a break. So maybe a visible schedule could help you guys keep track of that.

I know that when I was teaching high school, I would always keep on the board a schedule of what we were doing each day of the week. So when they came in on Monday, they would know what we were doing that day, and then also the days that followed. So how do we build to what we’re doing Friday? And I think that they thrived on that predictability. I know I did. I thrived on that predictability. That very simple thing — just having this dedicated space to talking about what our day and our week is going to look like is really important.

But then — I’m talking out both sides of my mouth here — but if you don’t know what the day is going to look like, I think that that is totally fine and we should give ourselves that grace to get through one day at a time.

Peggy: It’s going to be a surprise day!

Margaret: Absolutely.

Peggy: Yeah. I mean, even I’m thinking back — when I’m hearing you talk about this, I’m thinking back to when I was teaching 3rd and 4th graders, and how much they needed…you know, was it “A” day or “B” day? “What schedule — what time do we have PE today?” Just all the different things in the day. They wanted that visually up on the classroom wall somewhere. Kids crave routine. They really do.

Margaret: Mhm.

Peggy: I think that it helps them feel safe.

Margaret: Right. In that same vein, when we were teaching — I can even remember what Block 1 was. It was 7:52 to 8:47 or something like that.

Peggy: Oh my word.

Margaret: But, that is another element. And I think today, we should kind of allow ourselves to break free from those constraints. Like…I don’t mean to offer advice that would contradict what your school district’s doing, but if you work from home and are able to build your own schedule with your kids, maybe try to focus instead on blocks of productivity.

I had been doing some research and someone had recommended that, and I thought that was interesting. That instead of reading being from 8 to 9 and math from 9 to 10, maybe just say that, “In this time, we’re going to work on these objectives. Once you accomplish that, we can move onto the next thing.”

So allow some flexibility within your day if you can. But again, knowing that not all school districts are offering that same flexibility in terms of Zoom schedules or whatever they’re using.

Peggy: I think it’s really important that we as parents support our child’s teachers. And so, if they want something taught a certain way at a certain time — whether it’s being behind the schedule and supporting that, or being behind the method of teaching multiplication and supporting that — we just need to respect them as professionals and support them. And we can always add to our child’s learning.

Inevitably, as a 3rd- and 4th-grade teacher, there was always the long-division/short-division debate, and parents wanted to do it their own way. And that’s great. But, you know, let us do our thing and you can certainly add to your child’s options for how to solve problems with your old, archaic ways, that you are —

Margaret: Marge, you’re hysterical. My little ones with math — I just imagine that it’s…

Peggy: I’ll help them, you call me.

Margaret: Oh, that sounds good.

Advocating for your child — and yourself

Margaret: Another piece of academic support that we can provide to our kids now would be to advocate for them, to not be afraid to advocate for the needs that they have. That means that if they have a special learning accommodation, to try to find ways to get those accommodations given to at home, and whatever that might look like. Advocate for even yourself and your understanding of what is expected of them.

Peggy: Absolutely.

Margaret: I really like what I’m seeing from some school districts in our area. That they’re having office areas, like a designated time outside of their Zoom schedules, where kids can contact them and go over any confusion. And I think that’s helpful for parents too, to know that this time is when they can, too, reach out to the teachers and ask for some clarification. So we have this support that’s available to us as families, but it’s just knowing how and when and in what way we can access them.

Peggy: Yup. And just as how we were talking about processing with kids what was good today and what was hard today — I think we need to have that similar conversation with teachers if it’s warranted, if parents feel like it’s needed. Where we say, you know, “These are my child’s strengths. This is where they’re doing well. These are areas where they’re really struggling and I need some ideas. I need some help.” But I think when we ask those questions — and we definitely need to ask some of those questions — we need to be open to trying things, too. And sometimes trying new things is hard.

Margaret: Absolutely. Change is hard, that’s for sure.

Peggy: I think we all need to be flexible. I think, maybe, the most important thing would be to offer grace to each other. I think we’re all doing the best that we can. There are no right answers here, wrong answers, but this is a time where everybody’s in the same boat. Everybody’s struggling. Everybody has something that’s hard right now. And so if we can just remember that as we communicate with our child’s teachers and school teams and our kids, I think that’s a really important piece.

Margaret: Yeah. To build off of that, I was looking at a resource that a behavioral health provider shared. It’s from Mental Health America. It’s a back-to-school COVID, “Coping during COVID” they call it, a school kit. They provided some — I’d encourage people to look at it if they want some additional support for their family’s mental health.

But there is one where they gave some advice to teachers, to students, and then to parents. And there was different advice, but then one thread that was woven through all was to focus on what we can control and then be empowered by those things that we can control. So for parents, we can control what the school day looks like to a certain extent. There’s a lot that we can’t control, but there are things that we can that can help us to be successful and support our kids and set them up for success. So I thought that was an empowering thought to lead with.

Peggy: Yeah, at the end of the day, that’s all we really can do from a healthy perspective. Focus on what we can do as parents. Help our kids focus on what they can do as students. And how we can do the best we can with our teachers.

Margaret: And don’t be afraid to look for help and support from others.

Peggy: Absolutely.

Margaret: Yeah. Thank you for taking the time to listen today.

Peggy: I’ve loved talking through this with you, and I think we’ve learned a lot and discussed a lot of important points. And I want to just thank everybody for listening.

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