Back to school during pandemic

Opinions vary widely about whether it’s a good idea, but regardless of the wisdom involved, our children are headed back to school this fall after a pandemic interruption that began as far back as March of last year.  As anyone who can still remember school life can attest, it can be pretty stressful to young, developing minds even without all the disruption the coronavirus has wrought.

So what’s it going to be like for the “coronakids” coming back this fall? What challenges will they face and how can we help our kids overcome them?

What’s true in adult life is even more intensely true for kids in school.  Relationships are everything. They can build confidence or destroy it.  In addition to reading, writing and trigonometry, schools serves as boot camps for how to work, play and live in the world with others.

And even if some grownups liked Zoom enough to think they didn’t need an office, it clearly fell short as a substitute for recess, extracurricular activities and the thrill of running in the halls.

“There is undeniably a link between academic performance and in-person interaction with other students and teachers,” said Jeff Hubbell, GraceMed’s Director of Behavioral Health. “Students draw motivation to learn from the presence of classmates.  That may surprise some who once thought of other kids as a distraction, but what remote learning has taught us is there is an energy in an in-person classroom, probably stemming from a desire to keep up with or stand out among your peers.”

As they return to school this fall, the gap will likely have unfairly widened between higher and poorer performing students. The reason? A technological divide that occurred when learning was dependent on your student’s degree of access to high-speed internet and desktop computers. Studies have shown that students who were limited to smart phones or tablets, who typically come from lower-income households, have fallen farther behind.

“Beyond the added academic challenge, there’s the overwhelming anxiety and feelings of inadequacy that accompany being behind,” Jeff pointed out. “It’s a feeling like all of a sudden, you’re on the outside looking in on a class you no longer feel a part of. The emotional impact can distract you and rob your confidence, so catching up becomes just that much harder.”

It’s not all bad news. In fact, a lot of kids learned to miss going to school and are now more excited than ever to go back.  But just in the nick of time, a new variant of the coronavirus has made school age children far more susceptible.  And unlike their older siblings and parents, kids under 12 can’t get a vaccine yet.  So all that excitement is running headlong into a wave of fear that they may get sick.

What can concerned parents do to help their children during a school-year re-entry? Here are a few tips that may take some of the heat off the capsule:

  • Watch for changes in eating habits.  If anxiety or depression are setting in, the symptoms often manifest themselves in what appears to be a loss of appetite or even stomach pain.
  • Talk, listen, talk. Even if your child is resistant, work to keep the lines of communication open.  If they express any fears, make sure to validate their feelings. Sure, you’ve never gone to school in a pandemic, but if you listen closely, you may find you can relate to what they are going through.
  • Facts can be comforting. If they hear COVID stories, reassure them with COVID facts.  Be the adult in charge, and it will do a lot for your child’s security.
  • Take time to help. If getting behind is a problem, be encouraging, but also be willing to dive in and help. If it’s a topic that’s not your strong suit, learn it together, and connect with your child’s teacher to find out where and how you can help.
  • Time heals all wounds. Kids could be cruel before there was a pandemic, and you can’t shield your child from every negative experience.  But you can listen to and respect their feelings. Then give them the benefit of a maturity they don’t have yet by reassuring them they’re alright and giving them your insight that what seems like an insurmountable problem today will soon be forgotten.

The pandemic has taught us that kids learn bests when they are physically with each other at school. So as rocky as re-entry may seem, it will likely end in a safe splash down — and improved grades. If you can help them keep their cool in transition, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised to discover that even pandemics can be learning experiences, and somehow you’ve raised a child that’s even more resilient and capable on the other side.  Take a bow, Mom and Dad.

This post originated in our State of Grace quarterly news magazine. If you would like to receive the magazine, please visit this link and give us your information. Thanks!