Reopening Schools and Parental Dilemmas

Can “proactive coping” help?

Posted Aug 09, 2020

Gustavo Fring/Pexels
Source: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

America is embarking on an experiment of epic proportions: Reopening our schools, colleges, and universities. This experiment is taking place at a time when Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the trajectory of the pandemic and 7 out of 10 U.S. parents say it’s a risk to their health and well-being to return their children to school. A majority of American parents think it’s better to wait to open schools; parents of color are especially apprehensive.

Yet the experiment is taking place in one form or another.

For parents, it’s hard to know what to do. I feel this uncertainty personally because my family is one of millions participating in the experiment. This spring, our son graduated high school remotely. Now, he’s determined to move to a large state university, joining the vast majority (76%) of college students who want to return to campus.

Should we let him go or compel him to remain home? If he goes, should he live in the dorms or off-campus? If he goes, what happens if the pandemic sweeps college campuses? Already, more than 6,600 coronavirus cases have been connected to college campuses since the pandemic started. (This figure reflects data as of July 28 and is considered an undercount.)

The complexity of the experimental design makes it difficult for parents to know what to do. For example, some K-12 schools plan to reopen remote-only, such as the Ann Arbor (Michigan) public schools, the community in which I live. Yet the New York City public school system currently plans to reopen with a blended model—a mix of remote learning and part-time, in-person education.

Reopening plans for colleges and universities cover the pedagogical waterfront, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Few plan to be fully in person (2.5%), but 2 out of 10 (21%) plan to be primarily in person. Sixteen percent plan hybrid offerings (like the NYC blended model), with 24% primarily online and 4% fully online. The biggest category (27%) is TBD, reflecting just how much uncertainty there is about what to do.

All plans are subject to last-minute changes. Smith College, for example, just announced a major change in its reopening plans: All classes will be remote and students cannot return to campus. Similarly, Michigan State University is now encouraging students to remain home. Parents and students elsewhere may learn at the last minute that students must stay home.

Uncertainty and Anxiety

Uncertainty and anxiety may be watchwords for the coronavirus pandemic. “Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children,” notes the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). “Public health actions, such as social distancing, can make people feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety.”

Indeed, almost 6 out of 10 (58%) of Americans say they are very or somewhat worried about getting the virus, according to a Gallup poll on July 27-August 2. About 7 out of 10 (69%) say their lives have been affected or disrupted a great deal (25%) or a fair amount (44%). And Americans report a wide range of daily negative emotions: stress (55%), worry (46%), anxiety (40%), boredom (36%), sadness (26%), anger (24%), loneliness (22%), and depression (20%). (Each figure is the percentage of Americans who reported experiencing a specific emotion “a lot of the day” the day before they participated in the Gallup survey.)

Uncertainty is psychologically unsettling. “Uncertainty about a possible future threat disrupts our ability to avoid it or to mitigate its negative impact,” write psychologists Dan Grupe and Jack Nitschke in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, “and thus results in anxiety.” The combination of uncertainty and anxiety can lead to maladaptive behaviors, such as inflated estimates of the likelihood and costs of a potential threat, hypervigilance, and avoidance thought and behavior. Intolerance of uncertainty elevates stress and invokes repetitive thought, such as rumination and worry, to cope with it. 

What all this means in the context of reopening schools is that uncertainty makes it difficult to prepare appropriately for the future. It’s difficult to assess accurately the risks and benefits of returning our children to school and to make sound decisions about what our families should and shouldn’t do—now, and in the future as circumstances and conditions change.

Can “Proactive Coping” Help?

We humans have invented a diverse array of coping strategies (some adaptive, some maladaptive) to manage emotions, thoughts, and actions around stressors. Some adaptive strategies could be working because the same Gallup poll that reported the prevalence of daily negative emotions also found that many Americans have experienced daily positive emotions, such as happiness and enjoyment.

Reactive coping” is a stress-management strategy to cope with a past or present stressful situation. Examples include the CDC’s advice to take care of your body, connect with others, take breaks, and avoid overexposure to the news. “Proactive coping” is future-oriented. In a seminal article, psychologists Lisa Aspinwall and Shelley Taylor define proactive coping as “the processes through which people anticipate or detect potential stressors and act in advance to prevent them or to mute their impact.”

Proactive coping plays an essential role when it comes to reopening schools and parental dilemmas. By looking ahead, parents (and students) can prepare contingency plans now for possible future scenarios. Having this plan reduces uncertainty about the future; without it, parents might be confronted suddenly with difficult problems and little time to think about adaptive responses.

For example, what would you do if there’s a major coronavirus outbreak at your daughter’s or son’s college and school officials abruptly decide to send students home? Or, what if your student suddenly makes the decision to return? Consider that two-thirds (67%) of college students report that they would leave campus if there were a major outbreak.

I discussed these issues with a colleague, asking about his plans for his college kid. He already had a three-part contingency plan and shared it with me. I also communicated with a local community health officer. I based the following what-if scenarios on the outlines of his plan, elaborated with my thoughts, comments, and links.

Please note, however, that I am not a healthcare or medical professional. I write this solely from the perspective of a concerned parent. And, your family’s plan would vary, of course, considering your unique situation, needs, resources, etc.

To illustrate a contingency plan, consider what you would do in each of these scenarios if you had a son or daughter away at college this fall?:

Scenario 1. What if your college kid tests positive for COVID-19?

Scenario 2. What if your son or daughter does not test positive, but school officials decide to close campus and send students home? Or, you feel your college kid should leave? Or, he or she makes the decision to return? Whatever the reason, in this scenario your college student is suddenly coming home.

Scenario 3. What if you or someone in your household gets the virus, your college kid doesn't have it, but he or she is scheduled to return home?

For Scenario 1, find out what your institution’s plans and resources are for healthcare, isolation, and quarantine. For example, Ohio Wesleyan University is providing isolation rooms (for students who test positive) and quarantine dorms (for those who are awaiting test results). Some schools are negotiating with local hotels for rooms. 

If your child is sent home, what options do you have? Is home isolation a feasible option? If a family member would be at risk should your college student return home, check and see if your local health department is able to coordinate temporary housing and support.

For Scenario 2, quarantine is essential. The CDC offers three guidelines about quarantine for someone who might have been exposed to the virus. If home quarantine is not a good option, temporary quarantine through your local health department might be.

Many colleges and universities offering in-person or hybrid classes plan to send students home near the end of November, either completing the fall semester then or having students complete it online.

Should Scenario 3 occur, does your student have the option to stay on campus past the November date? Is temporary housing an option? Can they stay with friends or relatives? Of course, the student still has to quarantine because they have been around other people.

We live in challenging times. While we can’t change the times, we can change how we adapt to them. Reactive coping strategies can help us on a day-to-day basis. Proactive strategies, however, prepare us for future. Together, both types of strategies help us manage the uncertainties associated with the coronavirus pandemic.