Surviving and Thriving When Schools Reopen
What worried parents can do.
Our education system is facing an unprecedented amount of uncertainty in how to move forward this upcoming school year. Guidance around school reopening varies greatly by states and districts, with some localities announcing that they will be going completely virtual in the fall, and others ordering schools to be in-person, 5 days a week. Many districts have not announced concrete plans yet and may adopt hybrid models. To add to the pressure, the CDC released new guidance strongly advocating for the opening of schools in person after their initial guidance was criticized by the White House. Meanwhile, the president issued a statement that schools in hot spots should delay opening, a reversal from his previous position that all schools should reopen or face the threat of losing federal funding.
Without a clear and safe path forward, parents are understandably feeling a lot of anxiety about the upcoming school year. Many are extremely hesitant about sending their children back to school, citing fears around the transmissibility and manifestations of the virus in children, particularly after new research suggests children can carry the virus at high levels. Others worry that extended school closures and virtual learning could lead to potentially stunting their children’s social, emotional, and academic growth, as pediatric associations have warned. Wherever they stand, all parents I know are exhausted from the triple duty of working, parenting, and teaching their children for almost half a year.
Some parents have been taking preemptive action: In recent weeks, homeschooling “pods”, where more well-resourced parents invite qualified teachers or other families to enter into their quarantine circles to share the responsibility of teaching the children, have emerged. If this becomes a widespread phenomenon, it (along with other factors such as internet access and demographics of essential workers) could continue widening the immense preexisting inequities in education.
There is also rising tension between teachers, district leaders, and parents, who have often been frustrated at the lack of guidance and communication. But this is ultimately a shared apprehension in trying to assess what to do when schools are supposed to begin in just a short few weeks.
As difficult as this coming year may be, it also presents an opportunity to build up connections after a summer of limited contact and isolation. So, no matter how schools return in the fall, there are things that families can do to prepare their children for the scenarios that lie ahead and to decrease harm to their natural exuberance, curiosity, and capacity to thrive—the psychology of opening school.
1. Relationships come first:
For students to have an engaging learning experience online, in person, or some combination of both, parents and teachers must come together to form positive relationships in the months ahead. Parents must advocate for their child’s needs and provide input wherever possible through organizations, forums, or other means. This is not a time to stay passive. If you have the time, make contact with your school, volunteer to advise the principal, create a parent council, or ask to be put on one.
Your relationship to your child’s teacher will be key this coming school year. Arrange regular check-ins and ask how you can support their teaching success with your child. Make sure to mention how your child adapted during lockdown and what your child will need to thrive. Ask them to share their observations and try not to be defensive. Together you can develop an individualized plan of action that can be shared with your child. It is relieving for a young person to know that the adults care enough to develop a plan.
And finally, make sure to remember that your child’s teachers are committed during this period. They, too, are suffering hardship, have their families to worry about, and yet will come through at work as well. Remember the daily applause health care workers received in New York City? Soon, we’ll need to do the same with teachers when they rise to the occasion during a national crisis.
2. Pay attention to your child’s mental health needs:
A recent survey found that 3 out of 10 K-12 students are showing declines in their emotional and mental health. This is also true for adults—45% surveyed stated that their mental health had suffered during this time. How could it not, in uncertain fear- and grief-filled times like these?
Although young people possess amazing powers of resilience, it is important to look out for signs of anxiety, loneliness, and behavioral problems. Keep this in mind as they renavigate the norms and structures of school life, virtually or otherwise.
I am often asked when a parent should become concerned about their child’s mental health. Indeed, it can be difficult to differentiate between sadness and depression, frustration and aggression, or problems of focus and ADD. However, children and adolescents often share their feelings more readily than adults. One way to make the distinction is by using your own instincts.
Some questions you should ask yourself are: Do you feel something has changed? Does your child’s demeanor feel different to you? Has your child’s mood or behavior shifted for a prolonged time? Can external things snap them out of the gloomy or frustrated mood? Are they showing signs of distress or anger on a consistent basis? Does your child smile, cuddle, look forward to things, or have they retreated and become silent?
To receive support, you can reach out for advice from doctors, clergy, or counselors—it will make you feel less alone. There are also hotlines such as the SAMHSA National Helpline or the National Parent Helpline that can help you navigate your options. For more serious concerns, reach out to your child’s pediatrician, or your health and mental health clinic as soon as possible and don’t let things linger. Do not allow shame or stigma hold you back—we all are struggling and seeking help is a strength, not a weakness. Engage with the school’s student support team, the person in charge of counseling, or the teachers if your child needs help. A suffering child will have a hard time focusing on school work.
It is important not to forget that significant mental health problems evolve over time, and the best way to prevent is to make sure the schools are going to support your child not only academically but a whole child, socially and emotionally. As a parent, ask the school how the wellbeing of children is prioritized during this hard period. Communicate with other parents so you can figure out how you can support the school so it becomes a place of laughter, joy, and learning where your child or adolescent belongs and feels welcomed.
Relational and mental health needs are now truly essential for children and families—not just the choice of school leaders and faculties—especially at a time when we must create resilient communities, schools, and afterschool programs where we can all heal and help those who have truly been traumatized. We don’t only want to bounce back. Parents, children, and educators have the potential to leap forward if we align the psychology with the physical safety of all involved. Surviving is huge, but so is thriving.