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There is no doubt that the last year and half has been difficult, and the COVID-19 pandemic changed what many of us consider to be “normal.” That’s especially true for schools, which switched to virtual learning almost overnight — an adjustment that was harder for some than others. But now, with three vaccines available in the U.S. and schools opening up, many parents, students and teachers are bracing for the return to the classroom.

Resuming in-person learning after more than a year of virtual schooling is eliciting a wide range of emotions, from excited to apprehensive. Anxiety around a big change is typical, and there are ways you can help your child cope.

Fears about the potential spread of COVID-19 are still a reality for many, especially as the World Health Organization identifies new variants of the virus. Some parents may be caught between the pros and cons of sending their kids back to school: Children and teens benefit from learning and interacting with their peers in-person, but COVID-19 is still a risk. Dr. Kyle Monk, a pediatrician with Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, says, “There are so many mixed feelings among parents and kids about going back to school … We’re excited about the benefits of in-person learning, not only because so many of my patients have struggled academically, but because school is really important for kids’ development.”

It’s important to know the facts and stay up to date on the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Centers for Disease Control is a great resource. Regardless of whether your child is vaccinated, they may be required to wear a mask and take additional safety precautions like maintaining social distancing and practicing proper hand hygiene. It will also help to know the school’s protocol if a student does test positive — and prepare your child for any contingencies. Having a plan for yourself and your child as they transition back to in-person school can help keep expectations realistic and give your family some room to adjust if things don’t go according to plan. Remember that any disruption to a routine can cause feelings of anxiety and stress, so be sure to check in with your child often. It’s crucial that you pay attention to your child’s behavior and emotions. Younger children in particular may be overwhelmed by being in such a socially rich environment after being at home for so long.

According to the teen Mental Health First Aid curriculum, symptoms of anxiety can occur when someone feels very worried, nervous or fearful. Sometimes these fears or worries make a person want to avoid certain activities or places; they can also cause the person to have trouble at work or school, or to be anxious around friends or social situations. Signs of depression or stress may also arise as your child transitions back to school. If your child becomes more withdrawn than usual or develops aches and pains they cannot explain, it’s worth starting an open dialogue about how they are feeling.

Mental health challenges can negatively affect your child’s learning and social development, so it’s important that you check in often and are equipped with the tools and skills to support them in the best way possible. Foster a space for your child to communicate openly with you, and be honest with them about how you’re feeling, too. Their feelings are valid no matter what they are, and you can help them work through their emotions in a healthy way. It also helps to keep an open dialogue with your child’s teachers and school administrators, especially if you’re feeling anxious.

Returning to in-person learning may not be easy for you or your child, but maintaining an open dialogue, having a contingency plan and managing your expectations are just some of the ways you can make this transition easier for your entire family.

For more information on how you can support your child, we recommend taking a Youth Mental Health First Aid Course and checking out these related blogs:

Mental Health Tips for Transitioning to the New Normal

How to Practice Self-care as a Busy Parent

How to Care for Yourself While Practicing Physical Distancing

References:

Cedars-Sinai staff. (March 15, 2021). Coping With Back-to-School Anxiety During COVID-19. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/blog/school-anxiety.html

Mental Health First Aid USA. (2020). teen Mental Health First Aid: A guide for young people in 10th-12th grade helping their friends. Washington, DC: National Council for Mental Wellbeing.