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A Year of Transition and Adjustment: Teachers and Families Prepare for School in the COVID Era

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Sarah Shoen

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Students across the country have experienced educational upheaval in an unprecedented fashion, ever since COVID-19 closed the doors of schools across the nation.

Many schools experienced a transition to and from remote learning several times in a single year. Between the inconsistency of school structure and lack of in-person classmate interaction, the 990 million students worldwide who were affected by COVID-19 have seen their school lives turn upside down.

Without the structure of consistent in-person learning, students’ sleep is likely to be negatively impacted — take a recent study from Arizona State University, which illustrated the decrease in sleep quality for college students over the course of the pandemic onset.

On average, a school-aged child (ages 6-13 years) requires 9-11 hours of sleep a night. Children and adolescents who do not get the recommended amount of sleep for their age are at increased risk for chronic conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and decreased academic performance, and this risk can be amplified or diminished based on socioeconomic status. Achieving quality sleep is paramount to all school-age children this year, as the nation collectively moves through these challenging times.

Sleep Foundation spoke with two K-12 teachers and a guidance counselor about how they plan on navigating this transitional year. Dr. Rebecca Robbins, Associate Scientist at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School, also weighed in on how to achieve quality sleep, which is critical this year.

The Transition Back to Routine

After a year of remote learning, one of the greatest challenges facing educators is the need to return to a full-day schedule in the pandemic environment.

According to Dr. Nicole Trainor, a public school student advisor from New Jersey, students may find it difficult to stay focused for an entire day without the freedom to take frequent breaks. For others, Dr. Trainor suspects a return to the classroom may have a more emotional effect.

“Returning to in-person learning may be a source of anxiety for some children, and that will impact their sleep patterns.”
Dr. Nicole Trainor

“Some of our students have not been in a school building for almost a year and a half,” Dr. Trainor said. “Returning to in-person learning may be a source of anxiety for some children, and that will impact their sleep patterns.”

While studies have made the argument for later school start times, especially for adolescents, Dr. Trainor believes a good night’s sleep is going to be essential for success in the classroom this year.

“The self-regulation, emotional control, and stamina are needed this year more than ever to combat not only the loss of school the past year and a half, but also the emotional toll this pandemic has taken on all of us,” Dr. Trainor said.

“A student’s entire day is based on their morning,” said Haley Encarnacion, a third grade special education teacher from New Jersey. Encarnacion attributes some motivational challenges in the classroom to a variety of sleep-related issues, whether it be waking up late or rushing to get to school. When students start their day tired, according to Encarnacion, their desire to perform in the classroom can be greatly impacted.

Dr. Rebecca Robbins focuses her research on designing behavior change interventions to improve sleep health. Since teachers are witnessing a child’s activity during the day, Dr. Robbins believes they are in a particularly appropriate position to observe a child’s level of sleepiness, which is an excellent proxy for nighttime sleep.

“A student’s entire day is based on their morning.”
Haley Encarnacion

“Teachers who notice signs of sleepiness in their classroom may consider speaking to the parents about healthy sleep strategies or, in the case of teenagers, speak to the student directly about healthy sleep practices,” Dr. Robbins said.

Adjusting a sleep schedule is a process but essential to avoid sending an exhausted student to school. Dr. Robbins also suggests that sleeping and waking 15 minutes earlier in daily increments is the best way to ease into a new sleep routine, instead of trying to adjust to earlier sleep and wake times all at once.

In order to achieve recommended sleep, the following guidelines are recommended for children:

Age Range Recommended Hours of Sleep
Preschool 3-5 years 10-13 hours
School-age 6-13 years 9-11 hours
Teen 14-17 years 8-10 hours

Scroll L – R for more details

Student Health Concerns

Caregivers and educators share compassionate concern for students, as the pandemic’s challenging and traumatic circumstances are affecting children in many ways. Of the students who transitioned to remote learning, 56 million do not have access to stable mobile networks, and 31% of surveyed parents say their child’s mental or emotional health has worsened since the onset of the pandemic.

“Teachers who work in under-resourced communities may pay particular attention to signs of trauma in their students, as these communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” Dr. Robbins said. “Therefore, students in these communities may have lost a loved one during the pandemic and be experiencing significant grief, and potentially be experiencing associated sleep-related consequences as well.”

“Some children have lost their safe space,” Dr. Trainor said. “Not knowing what will happen and [adapting to] all of the changes (e.g., quarantines, closures) leads to anxiety and insecurity, which will impact their sleep, behavior, and academics.”

Some children have also exhibited increased irritability, greater need for attachment, and fear, which have ultimately led to further issues with sleeping.

All of the teachers who spoke with Sleep Foundation shared a similar sentiment when it comes to supporting the students in the coming year — keep an open mind and dialogue.

Encarnacion knows the importance of social emotional learning and creating a safe space for her students, as she plans on “establishing a strong rapport with students to support them through this time.”

NJ middle school language teacher, Brian Lavery, noticed his students’ resilience over the past two school years. “Almost every student I taught last year was much more advanced with the technology they needed for school. [Many can do] tasks that only the most advanced students could have handled, pre-pandemic.” Teachers developed digital lessons and materials to meet the needs of remote learning, and this now provides new learning opportunities this year, such as utilizing technology in new ways to creatively increase engagement. Like many teachers, Lavery sees the resilient and adaptable nature of his students and will leverage these skills to build their self-confidence and maximize learning.

Teachers will need to focus on making connections and building relationships and trust with their students,” Dr. Trainor said. “Without those relationships and that trust, students may have a hard time complying with directions and completing tasks throughout the day.”

    How Teachers Are Preparing

    One in four educators reported they planned to leave their teaching jobs at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Teachers were also more likely to experience job-related stress and symptoms of depression than the general population.

    “The teachers need to be emotionally ready to teach and support their students,” Dr. Trainor said.

    Acknowledging the supportive role that teachers play for their students is a key aspect to this year’s success, according to Dr. Robbins, but also means creating an environment that ensures that they can optimize their sleep at home.

    “Teachers, who are in many ways caregivers to their students, must not forget to make their own sleep health a priority.”
    Dr. Rebecca Robbins

    “Teachers, who are in many ways caregivers to their students, must not forget to make their own sleep health a priority,” Dr. Robbins said. “Make sure to make enough time for relaxation, unplug from work close to bedtime, and [get] healthy sleep.”

    “The most difficult thing will be getting back into the groove or even figuring out a new one. If the COVID variants get worse, it could become an exercise in adaptability,” Lavery said. “This will be a challenge for all of us.”

    As this year’s back-to-school transition comes with it’s own set of challenges, one thing is certain — the impact is felt by educators, students, and caregivers alike. Even clearer, achieving quality sleep is a critical foundation for building success this school year.

    About the Educators and Sleep Expert

    Dr. Nicole Trainor, student advisor
    Dr. Trainor has spent the past two decades working in New Jersey’s Long Branch Public Schools as a teacher, Child Study Team member, Preschool Intervention and Referral Team specialist, and student advisor. She completed her doctorate at Monmouth University in educational leadership. She has a passion for social emotional learning and has been working hard to spread awareness of its benefits to students, staff, parents, and the community.
    Haley Encarnacion, third grade resource room and special education teacher
    Haley Encarnacion has been teaching special education for the past six years. She has worked as an in-class support teacher as well as running her own resource room. Building student rapport and engagement has always been her focus, as this helps foster a safe learning environment.
    Brian Lavery, middle school language teacher
    Brian Lavery has a B.A. in German Language and Literature and an Ed.M. degree, both from Rutgers University. He spent nearly half a decade living, working, and studying in Austria. Alongside a two-year Fulbright teaching assistantship, he also completed several semesters of graduate work at the Karl Franzens University in Graz, Austria, in the areas of linguistics, cultural studies, and literary studies.
    Dr. Rebecca Robbins, Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School and an Associate Scientist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital
    Dr. Robbins designs behavior change interventions for the improvement of sleep and circadian health. She has held teaching positions at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Doha, Qatar as well as Harvard College, and her research has appeared in Sleep Medicine, The Journal of Sleep, and others. In 2011, Dr. Robbins co-authored Sleep for Success! with Dr. James B. Maas. She has been interviewed by The New York Times, the Financial Times, and Readers’ Digest, and has appeared on ABC Nightline, CBS This Morning, and others. Dr. Robbins holds a Ph.D. in Communication and Health Marketing from Cornell University.
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    About Our Editorial Team

    author
    Sarah Shoen

    News Writer

    Sarah has covered news topics for digital and print publications. She holds a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Nevada.

    About Our Editorial Team

    author
    Sarah Shoen

    News Writer

    Sarah has covered news topics for digital and print publications. She holds a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Nevada.

    Learn more about Sleep News