COVID-19 and School: A Parents’ Guide

Tax-free weekend, stealing those last beach days, lovingly organizing school supplies. For many, back-to-school has always been an exciting time, full of possibility and, yes, even a little nervous energy. But August has not looked quite the same these last two years, and parents, kids, and school personnel are weary. September has shaped up to be a month of equal emotional extremes for many, with schools across the region shuttering because of illness or staffing issues and parents, kids, and teachers alike ready to dive back into normalcy at every chance.

Here, The Feelings Healers has addressed some common questions parents continue to grapple with a month into the 2021-2022 school year, along with some tips for recognizing and coping with big anxious feelings in humans big and small. Read on for our thoughts on:

  • The risk of your kiddo catching COVID-19
  • Whether or not you should invest in a homecoming mum this year
  • Age-appropriate ways to talk to kids about mask-wearing
  • The impact of focusing on your kids’ feelings to prevent learning gaps
  • Ways you can offer support to struggling schools and teachers

Will my kids get COVID-19 at school?

No one knows whether any one person will contract COVID-19 at school or anywhere else, but there is plenty of data you can use to make decisions about what events and activities you are comfortable with your child participating in. We already know how crucial it is for kids to attend school in-person when possible. Schools are an integral part of our society, and parents and kids both experience hardships when they’re close. Without in-person learning, kids can feel isolated, become detached, and miss out on much-needed engagement. Not to mention, many parents struggle with finding care for their children at home or providing the support kids need to benefit from virtual learning. 

The same goes for extracurricular activities. Many activities are relatively low-risk, especially if they’re occurring outdoors, like marching band or football. But this is Texas, and we are smack in the middle of the fall semester. So while you’re doing a little research on the anatomy of the perfect homecoming mum, you might also be wondering if boogie-ing down in a school gym is a bad idea. That’s a decision only your family can make, but some people might find this COVID-19 transmission risk calculator developed by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health useful when it comes to making decisions about upcoming activities or engaging in conversations with your children to help ease their own anxious feelings. 

While the chances of your child getting severely ill are statistically low, what the data seems to be suggesting is that children are not only making up a larger percentage of infection than initially seen during the first wave of COVID but that they are continuing to be a cause for concern when it comes to infecting their family members. Masks are one way to slow, if not entirely stop, the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant among and from kiddos, but many parents do have concerns about how wearing a mask at school might impact their kids’ socially and academically.

Will wearing a mask make it difficult for my child at school?

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. That pretty much sums up what it means to wear a mask these days. Just as the CDC loosened their guidance on mask-wearing, it tightened up again as data about the transmissibility of the Delta variant became apparent. The Special Assistant to the National Director of Pathology and Lab Medicine at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a self-proclaimed “nerdy scientist” with “zero political agenda,” reports that this variant is as efficient in hopping from person to person as any virus ever seen. The “ultra stickiness” of the Delta variant means that many parents want their children to wear a mask at school and that even now, school districts are continuing to implement mask policies for all persons on a campus, even if they’re vaccinated. 

Of course, many parents worry about sending their kids to school amid highly contagious circumstances, some also worry that masks might cause more problems for kids who wear them, such as bullying or discomfort — or even that they can lead to developmental delays in younger children. Some of the common concerns faced by parents are that masks will impair

  • Face recognition and face identification
  • Verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Emotional signaling between teacher and learner

If this is true, then some parents might think, Why bother sending my kid to school if they’re missing out on all the reasons for going, anyway? Some parents and educators even worry that trying to get children to comply with mask-wearing policies will create additional discipline problems that will take away from academic time on task. Many schools are addressing concerns about students’ social and emotional wellness through intentional actions, such as integrating or expanding their social and emotional learning programs with expert-driven curriculum resources.

Are staffing shortages causing extra learning gaps and stressors?

While we don’t have any hard data, we know that COVID-related staffing shortages are certainly causing parents additional stress. Some school districts aren’t able to provide bus transportation, many kids are with substitute teachers — when they can be found — and the fear of school and district closures might always be in the back of your mind. Still, how are kids taking it, and how is it affecting their learning?

Data from studies on children impacted by Hurricane Katrina, in which students had virtually no access to learning materials for months, showed very little impact on students’ test scores. However, preliminary data from some sources does indicate that as we move into the third school year impacted by COVID-19, K-12 students in Texas might be about a quarter of a year behind in reading and math, while the impacts on children with special needs are immense. We can’t imagine any parent is thrilled to hear about potential learning gaps, but there are some silver linings, if you need a breath of positivity. 

  • The kinds of gaps being measured right now are important, sure, but what’s largely being measured is transactional learning, the kind measured by standardized testing. If you remember the game show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, you probably remember how difficult it is to recall information you learned years and years ago, like history facts and math problems. Kids can catch up pretty quickly on this kind of information. (Side note: If you’re looking for some quality family time that spans age groups, have a family trivia night using questions from the show!)
  • Decades of research have shown that success in adulthood is largely dependent on young people’s development of cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal skills — what you might have heard called social emotional learning or character education. Even if you don’t feel equipped to tutor your teens in calculus, you are one of the most important influences on your kids’ ability to learn grit, resilience, and self-awareness. Unfortunately, trying times like we’re experiencing now actually offer rich opportunities for exactly this kind of skill development.

Your school-age kiddos are also being potentially subjected to the residual effects of their teachers’ stresses, even inadvertently. One teacher we spoke to recently said this is the hardest year she’s experienced in a decade of teaching. Another said that leaning on her coworkers makes it better, but she’s still never before felt such dread when it comes to going to work every day. These are teachers who love their jobs and their students — and they’re doing an incredible job — but times are just hard, and the pressure is immense. While the overwhelming majority of teachers protect their students’ feelings at all costs, usually internalizing their own stresses, teachers are struggling. Look for our upcoming blog on how you can offer your support to your kids’ beloved teachers, and don’t be afraid to dive into hard conversations with your kids about how they are feeling. 

How can I help my kids cope with back-to-school stress?

Even without the additional stress of a pandemic, school can be tough on parents and kids of all ages, from the separation anxiety for littles and the academic and social pressures on our older kiddos. We’ve got videos on a number of different common issues faced by kids and adults alike, but here are a few general coping strategies for stressed-out folks of all ages.

  • Watch out for information overload: Yeah, we know. We gave you a lot of information, too. But sometimes, you just need to step away if you are feeling overwhelmed. You know yourself best, and when every article or news video you watch gives you a new worry or increases the amount of time you spend worrying, it’s OK to take a break. If you are really concerned about missing important information, figure out what is a must-know for you and ask a trusted friend who is equally info-enaged to share with you if anything develops. 
  • Care for your body: Breathing exercises, cardio, or cleaner eating are all some proven techniques people use to reduce their mental stress. You might try one or all, depending on what works for you — and what doesn’t. On the adult side, while we’ve certainly been known to enjoy a glass of wine after a hard day, some people may experience “hangxiety” the day after consuming alcohol. While alcohol temporarily stimulates the release of dopamine, which makes people feel good, it also interrupts the production and serotonin and norepinephrine, other neurotransmitters that help regulate mood. If you find that you’re particularly susceptible to the depressant effects of even a small amount of alcohol, you may not want to rosé the day’s stresses away.
  • Connect with others: With Governor Abbot’s recent signing of a new law that allows schools to offer virtual learning options, the number of students not attending in-person school will increase. Whether your kids are in-person or online, maintaining strong relationships with family and friends is crucial to their mental health. That looks different for every family, and for some kids, that might even mean extra gaming time. More than 70 percent of gamers play with a friend, and some research has shown that gaming can even help build emotional resilience that players can apply in everyday life. 
  • Focus on your emotions: Not all coping strategies are meant to distract you from how you are feeling. For some people, focusing on the emotions you’re experiencing is helpful. Journaling, meditating, and creating artistic expressions of feelings can all be useful in coping with stressors, big and small. For younger children, parents integrating elements that are also used in play therapy, like puppets, can help kids express themselves and regulate their emotions. Simply asking your child how their favorite toy is feeling can help kids express emotions they may not otherwise. 

What are some common signs of anxiety or depression?

Sometimes, what might just cause normal stress for some is amplified for those with anxiety disorders. It’s perfectly normal to contact a therapist for help, even if you don’t live with an anxiety disorder or clinical depression, and it’s important to recognize the signs that you or your child might be dealing with more than can be handled alone.

  • Decreased energy, sluggishness, or excessive sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions, even “easy” ones, like what to choose for dinner
  • Tummy aches with no apparent cause, especially in young children
  • Changes in appetite, either an increase or decrease
  • Trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or an increase in bad dreams
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or friends
  • Ongoing feelings of sadness or worry
  • Excessive anger or irritability
  • Unintentionally tense muscles or gritted teeth
  • Frequent racing heartbeat
  • Difficulty controlling fears, even “justified” fears
  • More frequent urination or return to bed-wetting
  • Excessive clinginess, whining, or outbursts

The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) reports that a third of adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, and the CDC reported in 2018 that 4.4 million children between ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with anxiety and another 1.9 have been diagnosed with depression. While mental health and mental illness are not the same, there is no shame in either.

Therapy can give you the tools to overcome your anxiety in the face of some of the most troubling times the world will ever experience. Our team of diverse psychotherapists believes in working collaboratively with individuals, couples, and families to resolve issues, build stronger bonds, and create sustainable habits that can keep you grounded.

Contact us today to get started on your journey.

When you need us, we’re here.

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