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The Ambiguous Reunification of Students Returning to School

Are students really back at school even if they are physically in some settings?

Endings do not have to be messy but they often are. When schools closed abruptly in the spring, many of us, educators and students, were left unfulfilled—“education interruptus”—and unresolved. Ambiguous loss, a term coined by Pauline Boss, a University of Minnesota professor, captures what people experience when a loss remains unclear or unresolved; a runaway child is missing or a soldier never returns from war. There is no clear closure. In June, graduations occurred but were celebrated differently. In-person goodbyes morphed into on-line farewells as friends and family never got to celebrate as they might have in the past.

This fall, we face new uncertainty. How are K-12 schools re-opening in September and October? Will learning be in-person, will all grades be invited back into the buildings, and, if so, will students be in school at the same time as their friends? Will students see familiar adults, like mental health professionals and health staff, online or in-person?

Whereas ambiguous loss might help us conceptualize the reactions in the spring, ambiguous reunification may help us think about what is happening this fall. When is a return not a return? Are we getting together if we are back in school but not in face-to-face contact? Ambiguous reunification has been used to refer to when a missing person, usually a child who has been gone for at least a few months, is reunited with their family. The missing person has changed during the absence and the family members left behind have also changed. While there is great joy at being reunited, a period of adjustment is required by all parties, especially if the separation has been lengthy. The child is older, bigger, and has grown in ways often unknown to the left behind family members. Those family members have also changed but may want to treat the child as if they were the same age as when they first vanished.

When classmates get back together, they will have had a longer period of separation than is typical. School separations usually last for the summer. In 2020, they included the spring too and, in some cases, separations will last some, or all, of the fall (or longer). Students will have continued their growth but often out of sight of many of their friends and classmates. Even if students are in a district that is offering school in-person, it likely will not be a full-fledged reunion. Social distancing and mask-wearing and other cautionary actions are, by their very nature, designed to force less contact. Students will be back together but not back together in the same way.

What can we do with an ambiguous reunification? Trudge on. Get comfortable with the nature of uncertainty and the loss that permeates uncertainty. Not everything can be fixed. That is true today and it will be true until the remainder of time. What can be worked with is how we frame this cataclysmic series of events, how we choose to deal with our separation, and how we focus on our locus of control. Reunification with friends will happen at some point. A return to school will happen without the barriers we now must erect to stay safe. Until then, we must find additional ways to stay in contact so that when the doors finally open we can walk through together.

Jennifer Greif Green, Ph.D. is associate professor, Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development

Alissa Greif Ovadia, LICSW, CAGS, is Guidance Counselor, Health School. Brookline, MA.

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