Ready or Not, Here We Go... Back to School?

5 ways to manage back-to-school stress during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Posted Aug 09, 2020

For months we have been discussing back-to-school plans for our K-12 and higher education institutions. By and large, these anxiety-dominated conversations have been happening on politicized, theoretical stages, with little input from the students and parents, or staff, teachers, and faculty directly impacted by these decisions. In many cases, this glaring irony has negatively impacted individuals, families, and communities around our nation, leaving a lot of us feeling dismissed, discouraged, and disempowered.

Most recent polls report the vast majority of faculty, teachers, and staff are gravely concerned about returning to work amidst the COVID-19 pandemic (Barton, 2020). Aging, immune-compromised, or caregiving educators are hesitant to expose themselves to age groups that demonstrate low adherence to social distancing, mask-wearing, and other safety precautions.

At the same time, while parents may post memes and videos on social media begging people to come and take their children, by and large, the surveys of parents show they fear risking their child’s and family’s health by sending them to school (Barnum & Bryan, 2020). They also report deep concerns over either sending their child to school intermittently or educating them from home full-time. Either a blended or fully-remote option presents issues with childcare, work arrangements, and a lack of experience and ability to teach their own children.

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Source: G. Tbov/Shutterstock

On the other hand, many parents of young adult children, and the university-bound students themselves are considering postponing their higher education goals for a year, or more (Jaschik, 2020). Without the “traditional college experience” available and the lingering stigma of the inferiority of online learning, parents and students alike are wanting deep discounts to their tuition bills, if they attend at all.

All of this can leave one feeling powerless, panicked, or possibly paralyzed in fear. How then, are we to navigate through these continuously shifting circumstances, overwhelming feelings, and contradicting demands?

The following five suggestions won’t remove all your stress about the looming school year, but following them may help you face it with less anxiety and a stronger sense of empowerment. So, when the next announcement of the latest change in return-to-school plans comes, allow yourself some time to breathe and consider using these five tools.

1. Determine your priorities.

When we are in a state of distress, your body and brain could be operating from a “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn” response (Health.Harvard.Edu, 2020). In this frame of mind, we are not accessing our “logic brain” as much as we are relying on our “survival brain.” Our survival brain helps us make quick decisions to preserve and protect ourselves from perceived immediate danger.

If you start feeling anxious when receiving notice of yet another change of plans, rather than making a survival-brain decision, engage your logic brain by looking to your longer-term priorities instead. To begin, make a list of things you consider important right now. For example, you may have three priorities: Providing a good education for your 10-year-old, working to support your family as a single parent, and avoiding exposing your live-in 62-year-old mother to COVID-19.

Next, rate each one independently on a scale of 1 = not at all important to 10 = the most important priority right now. Doing this may help you better decide how to respond to a recent announcement of a choice to either a) send your child to school on alternate days a week or b) an all-online option.

2. Identify distorted thoughts.

Most of us think we make decisions based on the facts we have before us. In truth, we act on our interpretation of what is happening, not some objective version of reality. For example, when you learn that your freshman year will be all online courses, you may automatically think “I can never do that,” and decide you will postpone for a year without exploring the idea any further. Instead of giving in to that automatic thought, ask yourself, “When I found out about this, what was the first thought that went through my mind?”

Slowing down your decision making can help you challenge those distorted beliefs instead of cutting yourself short of a learning experience. How might changing your automatic thought of “I can’t do that!” to, “How do I know if I can do it if I’ve never tried an online class before?” change your decision?

3. Acknowledge your feelings.

When we are not in survival mode, so many of us think we must make decisions based only on logic. We try to shove our feelings out of the way so we can be “clear-headed” about the matter at hand. But ignoring our emotions is precisely what causes us to lead with them.

Instead of swallowing your feels, take a moment to acknowledge what you’re feeling about this news. When you are in a triggered state, you receive information, have an automatic thought, feel an emotion, and take action all within seconds. By slowing this process and connecting our feelings and thoughts, we can make a decision we feel better about. From the example above: “I can’t do that” leads to feeling defeated, which makes us postpone our education. “How will I know if I’ve never tried?” leads to curiosity, and a decision to try.

4. Engage all of your resources and supports.

When you feel overwhelmed, you tend to think you can rely on only yourself. In survival mode, you consider only the resources within your immediate access. By identifying and changing your automatic thoughts and checking-in with your feelings, you switch on your full self. This gives you an opportunity to consider other resources and supports in your life. Creativity can return when you feel safe and grounded.

I have a friend who is a single mom to a school-aged foster daughter. Shortly before the initial stay-at-home order in March, she learned she would need surgery and several weeks of physical therapy. Needless to say, she panicked. Her automatic thought was “There is no way I can care for both her and myself.” This led to feelings of despair and guilt. She considered postponing her surgery.

Fortunately, she was able to take some time to ground herself in her priorities and identify her distorted thinking. This produced new feelings of hope and courage. As a result, she reached out to a church family and the next-door neighbors. Together, they decided that these three families (with 6 children between them) would quarantine together. They devised plans for meals, child care, and schooling arrangements. By calming herself to the point where she could see beyond what was within her immediate access, she connected with others who could help her with her priorities—getting a much-needed surgery and caring for her foster daughter.

5. Respond rather than react.

Finally, once you are out of a state of survival, determined your priorities, identified your automatic thoughts, acknowledged your feelings, and gathered your resources and supports, you are ready to respond to the new information rather than react. Unless you are truly in a dangerous situation and need to let your survival brain take over, a thoughtful, emotionally sound response that utilizes your full resources and supports to meet your highest priorities first will always be better in the long run.

These are truly trying times for so many of us. With social distancing and self-quarantining become necessary, it’s easy to be knocked into a tailspin. While these suggestions won’t take all the stress and hardship away, they can help you shift from a panicked sense of hopelessness to a place of sound decision making and inspire hope.


Barnum, M., Bryan, C. (2020). Despite Stress of Closures, Most Parents Wary of Rush to Return to School, Polls Say. Retrieved from

Barton, A. (2020). Educators are Uncomfortable Returning to School in the Fall, National Survey Finds. Retrieved from Burlington Free Press

Health.Harvard.Edu (2020). Understanding the Stress Response. Retrieved from Health.Harvard.Edu

Jaschik, S. (2020). The Online Risk. Retrieved from Inside Higher Ed