As local students prepare to return to school for the first time since the novel coronavirus shuttered classrooms in March, the anxieties of teachers and parents are ramping up.
And while many school-aged children eagerly await the chance to get back to friends, lunch rooms and playgrounds, they, too, may be feeling an extra dose of dread and uncertainty.
Krisi Mattingly, a social worker at North Knox Jr./Sr. High School, said student reactions to going back to school in the time of COVID are likely to be a mixed bag.
Some may have separation anxiety after being home with their families for so long.
And with an array of new health and safety measures now in place, schools will look and feel significantly different than they did before.
Teachers in face shields, keeping six feet of distance in hallway lines and organized bathroom breaks are just some of the things that could leave some youngsters feeling uneasy.
But Kelly Eck, a social worker at Vigo Elementary School, says she feels confident that once students begin the 2020 school year, “they are going to get used to our new procedures and routines and realize these things are in place to help keep them healthy and safe.”
Until then, mental health experts say there are plenty of steps teachers and parents can take to support the social and emotional well-being of their students.
“I think one of the important things educators will do well is welcome students back warmly and enthusiastically,” said Jennifer Vickers, a counselor at Clark Middle School.
Providing that warmth, she said, as well as clear information about what students can expect inside and outside the classroom will help provide comfort, showing students “we’re going to help them every step of the way.”
Amy Schotter, who has been a social worker at Tecumseh Harrison Elementary School for more than a decade, said knowing what to expect goes a long way in providing comfort and stability to children.
“I know from experience with my own son, when he knows what is about to happen his anxiety and worries lessen tremendously,” she said.
For Mattingly, managing expectations during such an unprecedented time will be key to a successful school year.
Not only are students likely to be behind academically, teachers will also have more on their plates as they monitor social distancing, sanitize classrooms and ensure everyone keeps on their face masks.
“Some people are incredibly worried about catching the virus, and some not as much,” Mattingly said. “So giving some grace and trying to have empathy and understanding for others is what will get us through.”
Mental health experts also say it’s important to help kids focus on what they can control, such as wearing their face coverings, good hand hygiene and social distancing.
Reestablishing routines can also help to ease anxiety.
“Get back to the normal things we do: a regular bedtime, a time for homework and chores. But do this gradually because it’s been months since many kids have had to practice these habits,” Vickers said.
And now is the time to get younger children comfortable with wearing a face mask, both Schotter and Mattingly said.
If children have difficulty wearing a face covering for prolonged periods of time, Mattingly said “have them work their way up to longer periods of time.”
Educators and school officials also want parents to keep a positive attitude about the health and safety measures in place to protect children and staff.
This is particularly important when around children, Mattingly said, adding that “their attitude will reflect yours.”
It’s imperative, social workers say, for parents to talk openly — though age appropriately — about COVID-19 with their kids.
“Help them realize anxiety is normal but also help show them how to cope and how to reach out when they need help,” said Vickers.
Experts also say it’s important to answer your child’s questions about the pandemic and, said Schotter, do so with facts to ensure the child doesn’t walk away feeling unheard or dismissed.
Educators, too, are preparing for the possibility of more atypical emotional or behavioral issues in students.
Vickers, who works with middle school students, says something she may encounter will be rusty social skills.
“We need to be mindful that for the last several months, they’ve haven’t had as much face-to-face interaction, and with face masks they also may not be able to rely on facial cues,” she said.
Other possible concerns revolve around difficulties socializing and creating friendships in a time when social distancing will be enforced and assigned seating will be the norm.
“For students that struggle with making new friends or socializing with peers outside of their normal circle, this may be a challenge,” said Mattingly.
However, the former therapist-turned-school social worker says she’s hopeful that these changes actually produce a positive outcome.
“It could be an opportunity to break up some of the normal ‘cliques’ and bring peers from different circles together,” she said.
The school counselors and social workers say they’re also aware that many parents will opt to keep their kids at home and continue with various forms of virtual learning.
Parents who choose to educate their children from home should be cognizant of other mental and emotional health issues as well.
“Check in with your kids. Those who are doing virtual education but have friends going into school can develop a fear of missing out,” Vickers said, adding that she realizes parents are in a difficult position and are “trying to make the right decisions for their family.”
Eck affirms that checking in regularly is key and adds that it’s also important for parents of virtual learners to find ways for their children to stay connected to their peers.
Keeping a structured schedule and encouraging regular physical activity will also be important.
But, perhaps most of all, what all school administrators, counselors and educators are calling for is a little extra grace, with Schotter reminding parents that “this is new territory for all of us.”