Playdates are out, schedules are in - what experts say kids should and shouldn't do as the coronavirus outbreak closes schools

On Monday morning, schoolchildren across the country woke up with one question: What are we doing today?

From preschoolers to high school seniors, students were suddenly without a daily routine as the coronavirus outbreak closed their schools.

In an effort to slow the virus' spread, almost 20 states temporarily shuttered statewide kindergarten through 12th grade schools as of Sunday. They are shifting to online instruction, just like many colleges that are ending in-person classes. Many other cities and towns are taking the same approach in states that haven't yet announced closures.

New York City - the country's largest school district, with 1.1 million students - closed this week and could stay that way through the end of the school year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Sunday.

U.S. students are among approximately 420 million students worldwide impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, according to the United Nations. As of Tuesday morning, there were 182,425 confirmed cases globally and 7,167 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Systems Science and Engineering; the database also reported 79,737 recoveries. The U.S. has had at least 4,661 confirmed coronavirus cases and 85 deaths.

As officials have announced school closures, parents have been weighing questions about what to do with their kids for the foreseeable future.

Are playdates still OK?

No, according to Asaf Bitton, executive director of the Boston-based Ariadne Labs, a joint center run by the Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

"This sounds extreme because it is," said Bitton. Skipping playdates is one way to practice the "social distancing" that will slow spread of COVID-19, he explained.

The goal with all the closures, whether it's school closures, sporting events or theme parks, is to cut down on crowds and possibilities for new coronavirus cases.

The same thinking applies to playdates, Bitton explained. "Even if you choose only one friend to have over, you are creating new links and possibilities for the type of transmission that all of our school/work/public event closures are trying to prevent," Bitton wrote.

At least one town in New Jersey is trying to make residents follow that advice. "Social distancing means NO visitors, playdates, or hangouts and remaining out of public spaces," Maplewood Village Mayor Frank McGehee said in a Sunday announcement.

Children, as a demographic, haven't been hit as hard by the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, experts have noted.

Older adults and those with pre-existing chronic conditions are at higher risk of getting very sick from the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But children can be "spreaders," who can transmit the virus to people who are at greater risk, Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University professor of preventive Medicine and health policy, told CNN.

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Other public health experts have said small playdates can be okay - but kids and parents need to be vigilant about hand-washing and cleaning children's toys with disinfectant. Dr. Eli Perencevich, a University of Iowa epidemiologist, told the New York Times that complete avoidance of playdates "would be impossible" over several weeks. He recommended meet-ups in large, outdoor spaces, like a hike away from a populated playground.

So what can my kids do all day if they can't play with friends?

As more schools closed their doors, daily schedules for children starting surfacing on Twitter and Facebook , slicing the day into smaller increments devoted to academics, free time, chores and time to explore.

One Massachusetts charter school founder has a plan for "daddy school."

And financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin said he was going to type this schedule to his refrigerator for his kids.

The Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents, a Massachusetts-based pediatric neuropsychology practice, referred to the same schedule in a Facebook post and offered further tips on its website.

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"Our children thrive on routine," wrote Dr. Sophie Bellenis, an occupational therapist at the practice. It's important to keep up as much consistency as possible, Bellenis added. "Keeping these small things consistent can help our kids to feel regulated, calm and make a potentially scary situation feel much more predictable," she wrote.

Let's face it. There's destined to be a lot of screen time in the next couple weeks. Some of it will be the online learning arranged by schools, but there will be recreational screen time too. (An estimated 83% of kids between ages 6 and 12 were already watching YouTube in 2017.) It's not a coincidence that Disney released "Frozen 2" three months early on its Disney Plus video streaming service.

Common Sense, a nonprofit organization rating online content for children, has a list of recommended apps and sites for students. Meanwhile, Scholastic is releasing free online learning courses for pre-kindergartners on up.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood said parents should keep a close eye on how their children are handling the extra screen time and be in touch with school officials if that's not suited to their learning style. "Regardless, take extra care to build in screen-free activities like coloring, reading together, or playing games throughout the day and after school work is done," the organization said.

When it comes to academics, parents should focus on reading, writing and arithmetic during the unplanned time away from school, said Jen Garrison Stuber, advocacy chair of the Washington Homeschool Organization, a support organization for home-schooling families.

But make sure it's following the child's interest, she said. So if they're fascinated by dinosaurs, for example, read books about dinosaurs and do writing lessons based on dinosaurs.

"It's amazing how much more a resistant reader will read if it's a subject they are interested in," she said.

It might also be a good time for parents to cook with their kids or find an unusual or largescale household project like a building treehouse, Garrison Stuber said. "Make the most of that. See what creative things you come up with that way," she said.

One potential writing project is creating cards for senior citizens in nursing homes who might not be able to have visitors now due to precautions against contracting COVID-19, Garrison Stuber said. She's heard of some home schooled students who are now taking on that assignment.

Garrison Stuber typically gets two to five parent emails a day asking for guidance on how to educate kids at home. It's been about 40 daily emails from parents in the last several days, she told MarketWatch. On Friday, Washington State closed all of its school until at least April 24.

It's a good idea for parents to sketch out a rough idea of a daily schedule, but be prepared not to closely follow it, especially if kids are doing something that interests them, Garrison Stuber added.

"I think it's a rather small portion of the population for whom that will work perfectly," she said.

Working parents will also have to figure out boundaries, Garrison Stuber added. In some home-schooling arrangements where a parent works from home, one rule Garrison Stuber has heard is "if this office door is closed, you do not enter unless house is on fire."

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