How do you explain a worldwide pandemic to a child when you can barely wrap your head around it as an adult? Parents in Haines have been forced to consider the question as the threat of COVID-19 has increased in Alaska and around the globe.

“(The virus is) spreading quickly… because people are traveling and going to stores a lot and touching handles on the doors,” fifth-grader Cora Hoffman said, explaining her understanding of COVID-19. “I can’t go into stores right now. Some of my friends, I can’t really go to their houses and stuff. It’s not fun. Some of my friends came back… from Mexico and Hawaii. (Our) parents said we couldn’t go see them.”

Her parents, Daymond and Renee Hoffman, said they are trying to be realistic and honest with Cora and her younger brother without scaring them. “Mostly we’re just trying to impress on them the importance of keeping germs to yourself and staying away from other people’s germs,” said Renee Hoffman. It’s a topic the family revisits on a daily basis.

Parents have a role in curating the information they pass on to their children, said Haines Borough School District superintendent Roy Getchell, who included resources for talking to children about COVID-19 in a recent email to families. “You’re walking a fine line between not sharing enough and sharing too much. It comes down to a judgment call with your own kid.”

First-grade teacher and mother Sophia Armstrong said she kept it simple for her 3-year-old daughter. “I have just told little Gloria that there is a bad sickness going around and it is very easy to catch so we have to stay away from people outside of our family. That’s really… all she could understand anyway.”

“Kids are very adaptable, Armstrong said. “If the adults around them stay calm and just explain things, they treat it like anything else adults teach them–it’s just part of life that they are constantly trying to understand.”

Armstrong said she has gone into more detail about COVID-19 with her 8-year-old who usually has a new question every day. “She has wanted to know when we can travel again, where this has spread to, how soon we can go back to school, when she can see her friends again. She has also asked about why there wasn’t a vaccine and where this sickness came from,” Armstrong said. “I explained that it is new and apparently it takes 12 to 18 months to make a vaccine. I also told her that the best guess I’ve heard of is that this came from a market in China where people were selling wild animals, which aren’t normally near each other, for food and it is very unsanitary.”

It is important to find out what questions children have and work to answer them honestly but in an age-appropriate manner, Getchell said. “This is a time to run interference or limit what kids see, not because we’re trying to hide things from them, but we want to make sure what they’re getting is accurate.” 

The approach is particularly critical for older children and teens who have access to a lot of information through social media, Getchell said. “Chances are they’ve been exposed to two to three times as much information as you think.”

Haines resident Sara Chapell, whose children are 13, 15 and 17, said she was surprised by how much her children already knew. “They’ve already read the articles and understand an exponential growth curve.” Most of the information her children picked up was accurate, she said, although every now and then she’d hear them repeat something that sounded like it came from a politically biased source.

Chapell said, in general, her 17-year-old is thinking about bigger picture issues like the social, political and economic ramifications of the pandemic while her 13-year-old is less concerned with those questions. 

Chapell said she worried she would get pushback from her children about the decision to keep them from having friends over or going over to others’ houses, but other parents have been setting up similar rules, which makes it easier to enforce.

The physical isolation from others has been less of a hardship for her children because they are media savvy and routinely connect with friends using platforms like FaceTime and tools that allow them to have virtual “Netflix watching parties.”

Chapell said her son Dylan gave her perspective on the virus. He recently returned from a spring break trip with friends and is going through quarantine in an unoccupied vacation rental, a method Chapell said she was initially resistant to. She said her son talked her through it.

“He said, ‘Mom, this is an airborne illness and it’s going to be hard to keep you guys safe if I get sick.’ I was bringing a lot of emotion to the situation because I want my baby to be home with me, but it turns out it was my child who was able to lay it out in a way where I realized I needed to take it more seriously.”

Dealing with the ramifications of a pandemic is not only stressful for children but also parents, Getchell said. Limiting access to the 24-hour news cycle is beneficial for both groups. Trying to keep a routine during a time of upheaval is also important, Getchell said. He said that’s difficult to achieve with the school closed through at least May 1. He said the school is working this week to figure out how to support families in creating a routine and that during the interim parents can schedule daily activities for children like reading and outdoor exercise.

For Cora and her younger brother Wesley, there has been an unexpected upside to current social distancing measures. “Are you guys excited to go back to school?” Daymond Hoffman asked his children. 

“No!” they chorused in reply, eliciting chuckles from their mother and father. 

“As parents, we have different ideas about this,” Daymond Hoffman said.