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It’s that time again but nothing about this new school year is ordinary. Experts from the University of Wisconsin–Madison are ready with tips and expertise to help us navigate.

Taking care of mental health

It is increasingly evident that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the burdens of substance abuse and mental health strain across the population as a whole. A recently published U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that 40 percent of U.S. adults struggled with mental health and substance use in late June, including a quarter of 18-24 year-olds reporting suicidal thoughts in the month prior to the survey.

David Gustafson, director of the Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies at the UW–Madison School of Engineering, can speak to these issues and how the pandemic has forced changes across the mental health and addiction treatment landscape.

Keeping kids active

How do you keep kids active even when the pandemic has paused organized activities? Cindy Kuhrasch, the head of UW–Madison’s physical education program and a faculty associate in the Department of Kinesiology at the School of Education, says it helps to use your imagination. Kuhrasch is posting videos on Facebook to demonstrate safe, equipment-free physical activities for children during an isolating time: simulating golf with sticks and dandelions, playing catch with a plastic bag in windy conditions, punting a crumpled newspaper, attempting solo volleyball with an erratic marble-filled balloon.

“These activities are designed not only to help develop motor skills, but also to provide opportunities for positive social interactions as well,” Kuhrasch says. “Given the social isolation we are all experiencing, the opportunity for a fun movement activity that also contributes to positive social experience is a bonus.”

She can discuss other creative ideas and why it’s so important for kids to stay active.

Healthy eating 

Many students won’t be going physically back to school. That means more meals for parents to plan.

Beth Olson, associate professor and extension specialist in the UW–Madison Department of Nutritional Sciences, can offer tips on how to eat healthy even when grocery store trips may be less frequent, as well as ways to involve children in the planning and cooking process.

“Spending more time at home, and lacking the ability to go out to eat, may provide us with an opportunity to spend a little more time being creative in the kitchen. It’s possible to eat healthy, even if you are using more shelf-stable and frozen foods than you normally would,” says Olson. “This may also be a good time to involve family members in preparing meals and snacks—perhaps involving kids in some learning activities—and to try a new recipe or two.”

Camila Martin, UW Health pediatric registered dietitian, can offer tips for providing healthy meals and snacks during the day.

“The start of this school year will look very different. With COVID-19, many kids will be learning at home and they could develop bad eating habits,” says Camila Martin, UW Health pediatric registered dietitian. “Poor food choices and habits in childhood are associated with decreased academic performance and poor health outcomes later in life.”