Schools are reopening: Why students might need more support than ever

return to school amidst COVID-19

A few weeks ago, as the school re-opening debate was intensifying in our district, I asked my third-grade daughter what she would think if she was invited back on campus soon. Her response:  

“I’d be scared and worried I would die. It feels unsafe because COVID is still here.”

I incorrectly assumed she would jump at the chance, or at least be more equivocal about it. After all, much has been espoused about how much it is in the best interest of everyone—especially kids—to get them back on campus. Many of us have been of two minds about what is the best option for our families, trying to decide between two suboptimal choices. But my daughter had no such hesitation as she asserted:

“There is no cure for COVID. And no vaccine for kids.”

She had a point. Two, in fact.

In the flurry of debate and societal pressure to reopen schools, some quieter voices are missing from the dialogue—the children who are terrified to go back.

Together we have all experienced a form of collective trauma as most of the world ground to a halt for a year in which we have witnessed the pandemic ravage our lives and economy. Many children have lived through a great deal of hardship and loss over the past year, disproportionately so youth from marginalized or resource-scarce backgrounds. As young people struggled to acclimate to their new remote learning landscape, the news headlines have been consistently frightening and confusing for many of them, adding to an overall feeling of potential uncertainty and underlying fear for their own personal safety. Many questions still remain unanswered for adults and youth: Is it safe to go back to school? Can children transmit the virus? How well do the vaccines really work? What about these variants?

Given these circumstances, anxiety is therefore a perfectly normal response. It seems wise for parents and educators to prepare for the possibility of a heightened state of worry and fear in many children. It is also possible to be both excited and worried at the same time and, if we want school re-entry to go smoothly, it is critical we help our young people acknowledge and manage these dual, and seemingly opposing, feelings. In addition, navigating social norms in a pandemic is complicated and there might be pressure from peers or adults to dismiss risks or precautions, which can add to anxiety and create difficult choices between rules of safety and fitting in or pleasing friends and family members.

As schools welcome students back to campus, parents and teachers can support their children by recognizing the signs of anxiety and responding in ways that successfully guide them through this new transition. 

Many parents wonder what the signs of anxiety might look like for their child. They can look different in every child, but common signs include excessive worry, school avoidance, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, tearfulness, and stomachaches or headaches. At the same time, the compounding trauma of children’s recent challenges (missed milestones, family losses, the turmoil of current events and the loss of connection with their peer group) could cause a young person to approach this return differently than a more “typical” stressful situation. The typical worries around disappointing family expectations related to school or athletics may now be interwoven with overarching worries about physical safety at school or more potential family losses, so “typical” stress responses could become “atypical” in this complicated time. For example, a normally motivated student might instead become listless, or a quiet student might suddenly start acting out in class, but both struggle to understand or explain the “why” behind the behavior change.

Most of us have spent the last year training our children to avoid COVID-19 risk. With a return to school, we now need to get them comfortable venturing out of their comfort zones and taking some chances again. This might create apprehension, awkwardness and fearful feelings for both parents and our students. Even if we are convinced sending our children back to school is best for them, our desire for them to return doesn’t make their anxiety any less valid or feel less real. We will all benefit from doing our best to listen and acknowledge our students range of feelings without judgment. As supportive adults, we want to leave the door wide open for our young people to express their difficult feelings as early on as they are able to, so unexpressed feelings of anxiety or worry do not cause larger emotional consequences down the road. With that in mind, do not hesitate to engage the support of a school counselor or other mental health professional if a child’s worries interfere with returning to campus or academic performance, especially if they persist for more than a week or two.

It might feel disappointing if your child is not beaming with excitement to return to campus. Do your best to meet them where they are and resist the urge to convince them that they should be excited. If you can patiently support them in their transition back, hopefully the excitement and positive aspects of the return to school will start to overtake their fears. As parents and teachers model the expression of our own “difficult” emotions with age-appropriate vulnerability, we take a powerful step toward opening up potential conversations with young people about their feelings. As you demonstrate your ability to recognize and own your own feelings of doubt, worry and fear, your child might also feel more comfortable doing so, which could help open the communication pathways we want to foster as parents.   

The school experience to which students are returning is not the one they remember, nor the experience they want it to be. While we have all been dreaming of returning to life as we knew it before COVID-19, classrooms and recess where masks, hand-washing and six feet of separation is required will no doubt feel discouraging and frustrating to some. This is especially true if this return follows an unparalleled series of cancellations and losses over the past year—whether it be birthday parties, graduations, dances, vacations, sports or the devastating loss of loved ones. Adults need to continue to acknowledge this loss of normalcy and give young people the space to complain and grieve in a way that acknowledges the individual need of the young person by meeting them where they are in their own emotional journey of returning to their school campus.

Vicki Harrison, MSW is Program Director for allcove and the Center for Youth Mental Health & Wellbeing in the Stanford Medicine Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences.

Jules Villanueva-Castaño is the Supported Education and Employment Specialist for allcove and the Center for Youth Mental Health & Wellbeing in the Stanford Medicine Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences.

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