The return to school buildings this fall is currently a hot topic, particularly as school districts across the region begin to unveil their reentry plans, some of which include a hybrid model of in-person and online teaching. In light of this, many parents are stressed about how to make the right decision for their children and if they should opt for full-time online schooling. These are hard decisions that no parent could ever imagine having to make. As every child is different and every family has a unique set of circumstances, there is no one right decision. So, how can you consider the safety, welfare, and individual mental health needs of your children to help guide decision-making?
First, recognize that many children want a return to “normal.” Countless students are longing for the way life was before COVID-19 changed everything they know. But, it is important to recognize that many youth may be disillusioned as the school setting will be quite different than it was before the pandemic. There may no longer be lunch table gatherings or hanging out at lockers, which were common spaces to connect with peers. Grouping desks for project-based learning might not be feasible and spectating sporting events with friends not possible. And, masks must be worn appropriately by all children over age 2, which can be a challenge for some youth. Thus, it is important to open up developmentally appropriate conversations with your children about how they are feeling, what their expectations are, and to discuss the realities of COVID-19 and keeping the family physically safe.
Secondly, no one knows your children better than you. Once you open up those conversations, consider how your children functioned before the pandemic hit. Was school a safe place for them? Did they thrive academically, socially and emotionally? Did they have friends, play sports, and engage in activities? Or, was school a place of traumatic stress? Did your child suffer from bullying or social isolation? Did they feel as if they could never keep up with peers academically?
Then, consider how your child functioned throughout the pandemic. Some youth have thrived at home with the comfort and safety of their family. Consider if this time home was a respite from school stress, bullying, or not fitting in. Perhaps your child felt more successful academically as there was not a constant face-to-face comparison with peers. Perhaps your introverted child was comforted by having more control over when and how they interacted socially. Or, perhaps this was a time where inequities became more evident — such as access to computers and wireless internet — and your child struggled to keep up. Perhaps your child had increased anxiety and depression while being home due to family stressors, financial strain, or sick household members.
These are just some of the many factors to consider when you make decisions regarding reentering your children back into school. Also take this time to ask your child their thoughts on returning to school. How do they feel about wearing a mask all day? Do they understand that they must maintain social distance from peers and that lunch may be eaten at their desk?
As you balance the physical safety and psychological well-being of your children, consider your comfort level with the safety of the reentry plan provided by your school or district, the use of PPE (personal protective equipment such as masks), and how well you feel the school is effectively able to follow the plan. Consider if your child is returning to school having suffered trauma, such as a death, that will need to be addressed. Consider how your children would react if a teacher or peer were to get sick. Finally, consider what interventions, strategies and supports might be in place at school to support your child’s mental health needs. The National Association of School Psychologists presents a matrix reviewing how students with greater concerns in re-entering school will need more significant intervention support.
There is no right choice; there is only the choice that is best for you and your family. Be patient with yourself and your children and most importantly, be flexible. The choice that is right at the moment may not be the right one in a week or a month as numbers of COVID-19 fluctuate and new research is released.