Back to School in a Pandemic

Coral Gables Counseling Center - Wednesday, August 05, 2020
By Cristina Anderson, PSY.D.

Back to school. A phrase, I’m sure, makes almost every parent shudder these days. These last few weeks, or better yet, months, have been a rollercoaster of uncertainty about what will happen to children, their education, and their safety in a pandemic. So, what does back to school mean exactly? For most students in Miami-Dade County, it means attending school virtually starting at the end of August, while a few others have the opportunity to begin in person. For those starting virtually, this decision will be revisited in September to then decide if virtual schooling will continue or allow for in-person as well.

Boy with backpack and mask on

Boy is this different than the back to school experience pre-pandemic. I remember back to school was my happy time, mostly because I loved shopping for my new school supplies and uniforms… as my mom unwillingly swiped the credit card. I loved prepping my planner and getting my binders ready… although I wasn’t always so thrilled about doing actual work. But many things have changed since that time long ago and this year has been particularly challenging.

As a new mom, although my little one isn’t school-aged yet, I can recognize the complexity and the anxiety-provoking nature of this time. Having an 11-month-old and working from home has been an interesting ride. It definitely has its perks, but its challenges as well. There have been plenty of sessions where my little one has made a guest appearance, or his babbling or toys were heard in the background. However, I am also very blessed to have my family watch my son. I breathe a sigh of relief on the days they’re able to watch him, knowing that he’s being cared for and that I can be present in my work. But having a family that also works full-time has made my husband and I consider at times enrolling our little one in a preschool program, which brought its stress during this COVID time.

For many parents, the different options for back to school may feel as though you have to choose between your child’s/family’s physical well-being or your child’s/family’s mental health. Many feel as though they are forced to see the value of one over the other, despite the importance both play in our children’s lives. It’s a tough spot to be in.

As a child psychologist, I have seen the dread of going back to school as very real with the families I have worked with and even in conversation with my family members. Here are a few things that come to mind when I think about going back to school during this chaotic time:

Give yourself grace

Whether it’s about making a decision about school or how you handle these new roles you are in, give yourself grace.

Choosing between virtual and in-person learning can be a very difficult process, and either direction you choose can still feel less than ideal. Regardless of your decision, I believe that the overall wellbeing of your children is your priority. However, wellbeing may look different for different families. For some, leaving for an office or going to school might be a haven. A place that provides structure, socializing time, challenges, and opportunities to succeed. To them, virtual learning may feel difficult, isolating, and depressing. On the other hand, virtual learning may provide a safe space for children who have had various negative experiences at school and allow them a chance to succeed at their pace with their teachers. It also allows for parents and their children to have experiences together that they would likely not have given the pre-COVID fast-paced living and involvement in activities. Whatever you choose, I’m sure it won’t be easy getting there, but allow yourself some grace in knowing you are doing what’s best, given the circumstances at this time.

Parents know all too well the feeling of always being ‘on’ and the pressure to always be perfect. You already wear so many hats and quarantine may have forced you to take on roles you never thought of. It has challenged the structure and timing of our days. Know that it’s ok to not be perfect, and it’s ok to call in for reinforcements when you need a little extra help.

Find joy

I asked my aunt recently about her experience with back to school plans and for her, it was particularly challenging to see her daughter cooped up and separated from a very active lifestyle she was used to. As my aunt described it, she saw virtual learning, or just sitting in front of the computer screen, like a dementor (from Harry Potter) sucking the life and livelihood out of her daughter. Although at first, her analogy made me laugh, it made me think that in a time where screen time means everything to kids, having the experience of going to school can be that fulfilling.

So, before school starts, set up a time to check in with your kids and see what would be helpful for them in this school year. Consider still going back to school shopping. Buy those new supplies and clothes, even if they can’t fully show them off to friends. Help them feel good about learning despite its different approach. Continue to find joy in your day. If available to you, enroll your kiddo in a virtual extracurricular program. My cousin can continue her dance classes online. Allow for different settings. Maybe one day they sit and learn at the kitchen table and another day they learn in their bedroom. If weather permits, maybe have them try learning in an outdoor space.

Find balance

This time of quarantine and virtual learning has placed parents in a difficult position of having to add to their ever-so-filled plates. Many struggle with finding balance in being parent/educator/worker (not to mention those teachers out there who are also parents!). In addition to giving yourself grace, think about implementing schedules for this new school year.

Identify a day and sit your family down for a family meeting. Ask yourself and your children what you would like to get out of this year. Setting small, reasonable, and attainable goals during this time will help keep motivation and incorporate some balance. Think about things that you want to do, even if it’s for five minutes, and add that to your list of things that you have to do.

Continue family time

I feel as though there was a slight time during quarantine where the stress of it became just a little manageable and families were able to take a step back and recognize the silver lining of their time at home: being able to spend time with their loved ones that their otherwise fast-paced and busy lives wouldn’t have allowed.

So, as this school year begins, remember to keep (or start) family traditions and connect. Maybe for you, it’s a family meal, keeping game nights, watching a show or movie together, watching a religious service… or even if it’s just for a moment, joining in on your kids TikTok videos… whatever it may be, keep something fun and connected as part of your weekly routine.

Ask for help

Remember it takes a village. We know too well that being cooped up can feel hard and overwhelming, so remember that it’s ok to not be ok all the time. Talk to your partner, family, friends, and children. Schedule times with them to check in and see what you/they need.

If you need a break for a few minutes, take it. Go into a spare space in your house, take a step outside, or take a drive around the block and take a few deep breaths.

Do the same with your children. If you feel stressed, they likely feel stressed as well. Schedule some break times between assignments, let them check in with friends, or if available, call on a friend or tutor to help with more challenging school assignments.

Even though we won’t go back to what we know as ‘normal’ for now, this time of uncertainty will too come to an end and things will feel easier soon. It’s ok to be sad and disappointed about how things are going, let yourself and your children feel those feelings and talk to someone. It feels good when someone else understands what is going on in our minds.