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Getting Children Back to School During COVID-19

Being too cautious may cause anxiety.

Helping children transition back into the routine of school is not going to be easy. Routines have been shattered. There is plenty to worry about, and the new normal feels anything but “business as usual." Add to this children’s sensitivity to the feelings of their caregivers, both teachers and parents, and we are about to toss our children into a simmering pot of stress that could raise their anxiety and leave them harmed for years to come.

Or not? The thing with COVID-19 is how unprecedented, and under-researched, situations like this are. The best we know so far is that children will be affected, just as they have been affected by exposure to war and natural disasters in the past.

So, what is the best way to handle children’s return to school? Taking my cue from other related research, I’m optimistic that kids can return to school safely and adjust to face masks, social distancing, and handwashing, but only if we give them the tools they need. Think of these suggestions (which I call the Three "O"s) like a box of Cheerios. Each “O” is helpful on its own. Together, they make quite a substantial breakfast.

1. Optimism. Optimism isn’t just a set of cognitions. We are inspired to feel optimistic when our world provides us with some certainty that the future will be good. Our children need the routines of school if they are to feel their worlds are predictable and safe. A return to the routine of school attendance and reasonable expectations for bedtimes, homework, and chores can have a soothing effect on children, replacing the chaos and stress of the past few months with the dreary but reassuring feeling that life is returning to normal. Optimists are more inclined to build relationships. They are less anxious. They feel more self-confident.

Those are traits our children will need and ones we can build for them by encouraging them to both go to school and take a little time each day to express gratitude for what went well. Did another child wear a funny mask? Was it nice to see some friends? Did they learn anything new? When children experience their lives as better today than yesterday, they are more likely to resist anxiety and depression, the double threat so many children are reporting these days.

2. Open communication. Talk to children about death. Be sure they understand as best they can that all of these precautions are there to help people who are older or those who are ill stay alive. Get kids to feel they are part of a collective purpose. We know that children are more impervious to stress when they feel their discomfort and suffering is making a contribution.

Open communication also means letting children know we adults are stressed. There is nothing wrong with sharing with our children some of our own struggles, whether those are financial or the challenges of working from home. The more children feel they can talk about their strange experience of returning to school, and the more they feel connected to others in their families and communities, the less anxious they will be.

3. Opportunities. Our children may not have access to their sporting activities and music lessons, but they still need opportunities to make decisions and shine. It’s our responsibility as their parents to provide them with age-appropriate ways to get the things they need, from sharing their talents to maintaining relationships. Even rebellion! While selfish, irresponsible house parties are plain stupid during a pandemic, they are a sign that young people need a way of breaking the rules a little.

Consider how your child can bend the rules at school. I’m not suggesting they don’t wear a mask or comply with other public health measures, but I am suggesting that we find ways for them to assert their individuality. Even a small child can still choose what’s in her lunch box or the color of her facemask. Our kids need opportunities to still be kids, both the happy and surly versions of themselves.

These three strategies could help stem the growing tide of anxiety many children are experiencing. I’m worried that younger children will be especially badly affected by endless handwashing and keeping their distance from others. Bending children’s natural inclinations to touch and be touched is bound to have some long-term consequences even if we’re not yet sure what those will be.

We might also want to admit that not all children want to go back to school and that for many, time at home has been a wonderful experience, with far less stress academically and socially. They’ve enjoyed having more time with parents and siblings and a gentler routine than six activities over five evenings which was typical of so many over-programmed children’s weekly routines. Like the skies above us, children’s lives have become less congested and brighter, at least for some. As they return to school, it might be worth considering what was good about the pandemic (even as it brought incredible hardship to many).

Finally, be strong when children refuse to go to school. For some kids, it will all be too much. Too many new rules. Too many changes. The anxiety has already wormed its way under their skin. In cases like that, don’t back down. Children’s opposition to school is normal, but so too is their need for a parent that won’t waver in his insistence that his child resumes her education. The worst thing we can do is overly psychopathologize our children’s anxious feelings. Push through, set expectations, establish routines, and be sure to provide lots of physical contact whenever possible. Strategies like this have worked after natural disasters and in contexts of war. They should work just as well during a pandemic.