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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Reynolds

Back-To-School(ish) in 2020

Returning to school is always stressful for kids, parents and school personnel, but the first month of the 180-day journey this Fall, was a novel experience to say the least.

Reporting to re-configured plexiglass classrooms left kids disoriented and left everyone else wondering whether kindergarteners and high school students alike would be able to adhere to physical distancing guidelines and wear masks for six hours. And what happens if an infected teacher, staff member or student unwittingly spreads the virus to others, who in turn bring it home to their families? These are the questions prompted by a global health pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans.

Returning to the kitchen table for remote learning, though it feels safer, comes with different questions. Parents rightly fear that their children will fall behind socially, emotionally and academically. They worry about being unable to give their children enough attention as they juggle company conference calls or alternatively losing income from not being able to work. 

A hybrid model that splits classroom time and online learning – the approach taken by most school districts – means navigating the best and worst of both worlds as everyone tries to balance health, safety, education and well-being.

As we head into the seventh month of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of this has taken a toll on families, especially moms. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 35 percent of mothers surveyed said back-to-school stress and worry has had a “major” impact on their mental health. When asked about specific signs of stress, 69 percent of mothers said they have experienced difficulty sleeping, poor appetite or overeating, frequent headaches and stomachaches, difficulty controlling their tempers and/or increased alcohol or drug use. Fifty-one percent of fathers experienced the same. Another study from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, found that 61 percent of parents of young children in Massachusetts agreed or strongly agreed that they felt “nervous, anxious, or on edge” because of the pandemic. Low-income parents and those who have suddenly lost their jobs are suffering disproportionately as they worry about having access to computers for their kids and without daily free or reduced price school lunches, they’re visiting food pantries and not eating in order to feed their kids. 

Six months in, we can’t yet fully comprehend the far-reaching, long-lasting economic, psychological, social and educational implications of this century’s biggest natural disaster. We’re all weary and while COVID deaths have dropped, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts the fall and winter months will be “one of the most difficult times we’ve experienced in American public health.”

It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better, but as our kids and families settle into the “new normal,” there are ways to minimize COVID’s impact on our everyday routines, our kids’ development and family well-being. 

Health and safety comes first, so encourage the kids in your life to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands frequently. Model those behaviors and explain why it’s important for their health and to protect others. Taking personal responsibility, making healthy choices, and navigating peer pressure are critical components of social and emotional learning. Turns out that COVID-19 is a great classroom for that. 

Disrupted school schedules means that many young people don’t have ready access to school counselors and social workers that serve as confidential sounding boards and can quickly detect changes in attitudes, demeanor and grades. Parents and other family members can help fill that void by checking in with them, delving deeper and following up on the opening “how was your day?” queries with more specific questions. What’s one thing you would change about today? How was today different than yesterday? What excited you the most about today?

Not that anyone thought they were terribly effective, but pre-COVID school assemblies often featured speakers focused on the perils of stranger danger, drug and alcohol use, impaired and distracted driving, cyberbullying, unsafe sex and other hot topics that impact kids. These can be hard conversations to have at home, but the consequences of a drug overdose, a car crash, attempted kidnapping, unplanned pregnancy or social media incident can be life-changing. There are tons of online resources with information and tips for having age-appropriate conversations that are better conducted around the dinner table rather than an auditorium. Start talking.

Most parents by now have heard the advice about maintaining household routines and school schedules, working as a team and communicating frequently with teachers and school personnel, and understanding the inherent limitations of trying to do all of this during a global pandemic. 

That’s why if you are a parent who would do absolutely anything for your kids, then please take care of yourself. Stay healthy – physically and emotionally – by making sure you are getting enough sleep, eating properly, exercising regularly and limiting your alcohol consumption. Schedule some downtime for yourself first thing in the morning or in the evening, even if it’s ten five minutes to watch a yoga video, read a book or take a walk around the block.

Start doing those things now and by the time the last day of school rolls around, you can bet that you, your kids, your family and our schools will emerge smarter and stronger than ever before.

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