Back to School (in a Time of Covid)
There was a lot of hype around the start of 2021. The year of the pandemic, we told ourselves, was finally drawing to a close. And while 2021 has indeed brought life-saving hope with multiple Covid vaccines, it has also brought yet another dilemma for parents as some schools reopen. Do they continue with remote learning (and all of its challenges), or do they risk sending their kids back to school when no vaccine is currently available to children under 16 years old?
In Oregon, schools slowly began to reopen in February, and the concept of “returning to school” has taken on a new meaning—and a new set of worries—says PANW Psychologist, Vivian Aranda-Michel. And when it comes to deciding what to do, “it’s important for parents to assess their tolerance for risk,” she shares.
As a behavioral health provider, Dr. Aranda-Michel offers the following step-by-step approach to determining what is best for your family when it comes to going (back) to school.
EVALUATE YOUR SITUATION
Every family is different, especially when it comes to health. It’s important to consider whether you have any family members in your home or with whom you regularly visit who might be at greater risk for complications from Covid. Do any children have underlying health conditions? Do you live with an elderly relative? Is anyone immunocompromised?
Even if you answer no to all of the above, you still have to get in touch with what Dr. Aranda-Michel terms your “worry index”. Worry, she says, can function as an emotional guide. When it is grounded in an appropriate context, it can help you make reasonable decisions. But when it is excessive, persistent, and not necessarily aligned with reality, it can impact your mental health and your decision-making. Coronaphobia, in other words, is very real, and it can affect your choices for the worse.
GET FAMILIAR WITH YOUR SCHOOL’S REOPENING PLAN AND YOUR CHILD’S TEMPERAMENT
In addition to visiting the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website, which offers a comprehensive and helpful guide for parents facing these school decisions, the best thing parents can do is get familiar with their school’s reopening plan.
If the protocols seem both effective and reasonable, then it’s time to look at your own child’s experience with remote learning. “The virtual learning environment has placed many demands on our children to focus, pay attention, and maintain emotional regulation,” Dr. Aranda-Michel explains. “Some of these demands have exceeded their capability and impacted their ability to learn.”
Examine your child’s response to virtual learning. Beyond grades, have you noticed any behavioral changes? Does your child have special learning needs that benefit from in-person classes? Has your child thrived while learning at home? Has your child become more irritable, withdrawn, or aggressive? Looking at these emotional cues can help guide parents toward the best course of action.
PREPARE TO RETURN
Going back to school used to mean a supply run to Target. Now it means thoughtful conversations around expectations. Communication about which things might be different than their pre-Covid school experience (masks, distancing at lunch) and how to handle problems sets up your child for success, Dr. Aranda-Michel says. Work to identify ahead of a time a trusted counselor or teacher whom your child can rely on for help if necessary. (Like when other kids bend or break the rules, or if the rules themselves are confusing.)
Beyond that, try asking your child what s/he expects school will look like. What will be harder? What will be easier? Validating their feelings without trying to correct them can go a long way to normalizing an abnormal experience. (Consider phrases like, “Yes, it makes sense you’d feel that way.”) And if your child finds it difficult to talk, other modalities like drawing or journaling can be equally effective.
There is no doubt this year of the pandemic and remote learning will have changed us all. So it’s no wonder that your child’s friendships may also change, especially once they’re back on campus. It is a good idea to remind your child that new or evolving friendships are opportunities for growth, but leave it at one or two conversations. “Not all problems need to be fixed,” Dr. Aranda-Michel says. School might feel weird or awkward at first, but instilling in your child the confidence that s/he can handle these changes helps build resiliency.
“Going back to school doesn’t have to be fraught with anxiety or fear,” adds Dr. Aranda-Michel. “It can be very positive.” Especially when everyone is prepared.
If you have concerns about your child, our team of experienced psychologists is here for you. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.