• Betty Ann McPherson

Back to School in a Time of COVID-19

The topmost on people’s minds in Northern Ontario at this present time, it seems, is what does “going back to school” look like for September 2020. Certainly there has never been a “back to school” time like 2020 in my lifetime. This pandemic has changed the way we think about contact with one another, and has influenced the way that we consider how our behaviour can affect the health of others. We are being flooded with a myriad of information spewed out by social media, news stations, local experts, friends, families and conspiracy “experts”.

It seems that the media in general spins the fear mongering that often compels the public to take heed and ready themselves for absolute disaster. As a therapist, however, I have been intrigued by my clients’ and colleagues’ reactions to the return to school. I have had the privilege of listening to teachers, administrators, parents, and children, and have been able to speculate that the return to school current ideology is not as scary as one would expect.

Generally, children and teens are looking forward to the return to school. They miss their friends, they miss learning, they miss school activities, and some even miss their teachers. Though they may not be able to express it as such, they also yearn for the structure that school in and of it self provides for children, and the purpose that is endemic in the composition of school. Schools can provide a familiar routine, a sense of community and something that is secure and constant in the life of a child.

Your child has likely already dealt with all of the disruptions in their life in a relatively positive way. Remember at the beginning of the pandemic - there was very little information and very little planning? Children (like adults) were thrust into sudden change and though difficult , most readily adapted. Sudden change can often induce feelings of loss, fear, instability and powerlessness. And guess what? - Your child probably did well with this in March 2020, especially if you as the parent coped relatively well.

From my own observations, it seems that parents carry the most fear. But these same parents may realize the importance of their own need to return-to-work (either from a financial point of view and/or their own social/purposeful structure) and their child’s need for healthy social interaction, organization, and education. We all desire a return to “normal” or at the very least a form of a "new normal".

Yes, this is serious. This pandemic is of critical concern, and it is probably NOT going away anytime soon. However, it is important that we structure a way to live with this virus while also continuing to live life and strive for the goals that we all aim to achieve. We cannot stop living. We cannot cease reaching for goals. Humans have a great capacity to adapt to undesirable circumstances in order to continue living life and striving for meaning. I liken this to life during wartime. During the Second World War many of the people of the world were adversely affected by the state of the planet and the influence that wartime measures had on them. Europe (for example) was engulfed in deprivation, death, destruction and disruption on a day to day basis. Nevertheless most people attempted to busy themselves with creating a sense of routine that comes from our great capacity as humans to acclimatise.

As a therapist the concerns that I hear from parents, administrators and teachers are usually worse case scenarios as follows:

1. Concern that their children may get COVID-19 and become seriously ill.

2. Concern that they or their children may bring illness back to their home and to their family – which may include vulnerable family members (either sick, very young, or elderly family members).

3. Concern that their children are not willing or capable or following the rules (physical distancing and wearing a mask in some cases).

As a therapist I feel that it is important to listen to concerns, to validate the fear/anxiety (which is real) and to assist families in navigating through their fears and making a decision with which they feel the most comfortable. Some of the questions that they may be grappling with are:

1. Do they have enough reliable information to make an educated decision?

2. Do they have the necessary supports if they do not feel comfortable in sending their child to school?

3. Do they have an understanding employer that would support them if their child became sick and was unable to attend school?

4. Are they making their decisions based on fear, or based on reliable information? (Is fear a healthy way to make a decision?)

5. Are they handling their own stress/anxiety appropriately?

6. Is their child capable of understanding the importance of physical distancing and personal hygiene in protecting themselves and others?

7. How can they best prepare themselves and their child in returning to school?

The reality is that some families just DO NOT have a choice about sending their child to school. And that some families just prefer that their child return to school because they feel it is in their own and their child’s best interests. So what is it that one can do in preparing a child to return to school?

Firstly, focus on issues that either you and/or your child can control. The practical things:

1. Prepare your child by reminding them to regularly wash their hands and/or use hand sanitizer properly NOW so that the habit is in place before school begins.

2. Prepare your child by having them wear a mask in public places (stores etc) ahead of time so that they know how to wear them safely and become more comfortable with this arrangement before school.

3. Prepare your child for complying with assigned seating in classes and on school buses.

4. Teach your child how to handle stress and anxiety NOW so that they have these coping tools as they return to school (e.g. breathing techniques, grounding techniques, stress balls).

5. Share with your child how the return to school will look like – information is powerful – the more information your child has the more effective/capable he/she will feel.

6. Assist your child in getting back into a regular routine – regular eating, sleeping and waking times.

7. Encourage your child to express themselves/talk if they do not feel safe and/or if they feel that others at school are not acting in a safe manner.

8. Reassure your child that things could change unexpectedly, but everything is being done to maintain their safety – and remind them that they have already dealt with the unexpected in a very adaptive manner.

As your child returns to school, assist them in building a list of positives:

1. They will be able to see their friends.

2. They will be able to see their teachers.

3. They may regain a sense of accomplishment.

4. They will be part of a larger community.

5. Showing off their awesome personal face-masks (maybe you can make some with your child and/or purchase some cool personal masks).

And if you choose staying home with your child: You can focus on having extra time together, or being able to have lunch , or taking a walk together during the day.

Focusing on the positives of whatever reality we are living is a powerful way to cope with any kind of stress

There are still a lot of unknowns. Make sure you are getting your information from reliable sources and keeping up with the changes on a day-to-day basis as it concerns back-to-school protocols. As you become informed, pass that information onto your children.

Most importantly, as parents we need to keep our own anxiety in check. Instead of confiding your fears to your child, find a reliable adult/partner/professional to talk about your anxieties. Children are listening when you do not believe they are listening, so be careful about the language and worries you are sharing in the vicinity of your children.

By practicing our own techniques for reducing your stress reaction (e.g. yoga, meditation, deep breathing, grounding techniques, exercise, eating healthy, prayer) we can also teach our children that they can also handle their own anxiety and their own uncertainty about the future.

Finally, in order to ease your own mind as a parent , speak to your doctor and/or your local health unit about your concerns, and about any health conditions that you or your child may have before contemplating a return to school and/or work.

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