***THIS ARTICLE AND VIDEO ORIGINALLY RAN/AIRED IN USATODAY***
In what’s shaping up as one of the most anxiety-inducing back-to-school seasons yet, the buzz among parents everywhere has shifted from Number 2 pencils to N95 masks. With so many unknowns around the coronavirus and the delta variant still ahead — many parents are turning to new tech tools to help ease mounting worries.
Online searches for “best kids masks for school” rocketed up some 250% in the past few weeks according to Google Trends. In addition to personal protective gear, parents are doubling down on devices such as Chromebooks and smart wearables, along with e-learning tools and subscriptions. Here are some of the top tools I’ve tested so far.
Masks that kids want to keep on throughout the school day could be the single most important back-to-school buy this year, according to the latest CDC guidelines. It’s also what thousands of my parent-friends are talking about on social media right now.
“My nine-year-old likes Outdoor Research because they work without fogging up his glasses,” writes Portland, Oregon-based mom of two, Karin Bryson on my Facebook page. “And my six-year-old likes Athleta girl masks. We’re also fans of Happy Masks,” she said.
Several other parents mentioned those same brands as well, and most are available online in the $9-$24 range. VistaPrint ($10), and Enro ($16.50) children’s masks also received rave reviews from many moms, dads, and kids alike.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends “the correct and consistent use of a well-fitting face mask,” and says masks should “fit over the mouth and nose and fit snugly along the side of the face without any gaps.”
The CDC also recommends washing kids’ masks regularly, and many parents say it’s a good idea to keep extra disposable surgical masks in their backpack or coat pockets as well. Several pediatricians recommend the “sun test,” to make sure masks provide enough protection. They say to hold the mask up to the sunlight and make sure it completely blocks out the light. “Face masks can be safely worn by all children two years of age and older, including the vast majority of children with underlying health conditions, with rare exception,” the AAP recently posted on its website.
UP AND AT ‘EM
Even in the best of times, getting kids up and ready in the morning can fray your last thread of sanity. One of my favorite new gadgets of the fall is this just-launched Lenovo Smart Clock 2 with Google Assistant ($79). It sports a vibrant 4” touchscreen to display the time, weather, and even a carousel of favorite photos. Plus, you can use it as a personal assistant to keep track of classes and assignments or to play music to help kids study or fall asleep. You can also use it to find your lost phone, get traffic reports, and even record sweet or funny messages for your kids. The Smart Clock 2 also has an optional wireless phone charger that snaps into place while docked, to provide a soft ambient night light.
MY CHROMEBOOK ATE MY HOMEWORK
Chromebooks are one of the most affordable, and most popular back-to-school devices these days, but most come with one main problem — there’s little to no storage on the device itself.
One small but mighty must-have to fix this common issue is a device to safely store all your students’ hard work, like this SanDisk Ultra micro SD card for Chromebooks (starts at $14 for 64GB). These tiny cards are waterproof, temperature-proof, x-ray-proof, magnet proof, and shock-proof, which should be sufficient to live through an average student’s real life.
With capacities up to 256GB, students room for a lifetime of lectures, and blazing transfer speeds to help them save, share, and move content quickly.
E-LEARNING TOOLS THAT MAKE THE GRADE
E-learning tools are more critical than ever this year to fill a gap between at-home and in-classroom learning. One of the most prolific and fastest-growing education technology companies in the world — BYJU’S — has just launched an interactive “learning suite” that combines the best of hands-on play with the limitless potential of the digital world.
With BYJU’s Osmo Disney learning suite ($200), kids use a tablet with the Osmo base, an app, and an actual workbook to practice math, language, and reading skills. The suite is supposed to build on what kids ranging in age from pre-K through the third grade learn in school. This includes foundational concepts like addition and subtraction, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking. The app is certified by kidSAFE, which is an independent safety certification service designed for children-friendly websites and technologies.
Also of note here from the same parent company, BYJU’s FutureSchool offers one-on-one online instruction starting at $15 for kids ages five to 18. These are personalized, live video classes, with an experienced teacher who focuses on learning “by way of fun,” according to the company website.
FutureShool offers activity-based math, coding, and music curriculum, which is especially interesting as more U.S. school districts face massive cuts in arts and music classes. Kids can also earn Coding Certificates and even launch an app on the Google Play store. The FutureSchool website has several examples of this—I’m blown away by them—including a ‘Safe Zone’ app created by 10-year old David Chea that marks areas not safe for kids, and sends alerts when a child goes into that area.
NEW MATH, OLD PROBLEMS
The crowd-favorite Photomath app also rises to the top of the class again this year. Their latest animated tutorials now come with voice instruction for 75 different math topics, including long multiplication, division, decimals, and more. Once you download the app, it uses your smartphone or tablet camera to scan and recognize math problems — even handwriting and printed text — then shows the solving steps and teaches students how to do it themselves.
I had a lot of comments from math teachers and tutors when I wrote about Photomath last year. Many people were concerned it “helps kids cheat.” That’s definitely a consideration, but I can’t imagine what I would have done without it.
I used it quite a bit with my own daughter and found it the best way—aside from expensive one-on-one tutoring—to learn how to solve modern math problems the way students are being taught to do it today. Most of the time when I looked at her math homework, I could arrive at an answer, but not the way she was being taught to do it. This app bridged the 30-year year age gap better than anything I found.
Every parent I know is worried about kids … being worried. Another gadget I’ve reviewed extensively this past year is the GoNoodle x tonies Mindfulness Starter Set ($100) for kids ages three and up.
The Toniebox is a kid-friendly portable speaker that comes with a Tonie — a colorful figurine that brings the speaker to life. It’s a great way to get kids off of screens and into their imaginations in a way that helps them relax, breathe, and learn core health concepts like meditation and stress-relieving movement. This starter kit comes with 35 minutes of GoNoodle’s signature mindfulness and movement songs that encourage kids to relax, breathe, and leave their worries behind.
Last, but not least, the other gadget worth mentioning is the BuddyPhones Cosmos+ ($100) headphones. These are made especially to protect kids’ hearing and combines active noise cancellation with SafeAudio, which is a built-in, always-on, sound control circuit to cap the volume at levels recommended for children by the World Health Organization.