As stakeholders debate the medical pros and cons of in-person vs. remote return to instruction, it is of equal importance to consider the mental health needs of all involved. Re-experiencing the emotional fallout from the virtual spring and the resumption of some type of schooling in the fall may be expected. Spring was more than difficult for many students and families for a variety of reasons while others did well. However, how are kids doing with the monumental changes covid has brought and continues to bring?
Kids (and adults) have had to limit their human, in-person contacts with those who are important to them. It is likely this human yearning for contact has spawned many of the rule violations being reported. At the same time, many kids (and adults) are experiencing higher than usual degrees of anxiety and depression as the uncertainties about the virus and when it will be “over” remains unknown.
Moreover, even for those who choose the in-person option, things will not be the same. Small cohorts may not permit some to attend classes with their best friends and those used to moving between classes will likely be glued to one seat and one room. Lunch and special classes may not be the same, and in-person class time will be shortened. This will be another in the long line of disappointments kids will experience during covid. Socializing is an important part of the school experience and, for some children, who struggle with the academic challenges, it is the part of school that drives their motivation to attend.
Each change may be experienced as another loss and this breed sadness, frustration, anger, and, for some, depression. Consequently, it will be important to prep students for the return to in-person instruction. For those continuing on remote, they, too, need preparation to return to the less than satisfying format of online learning.
How about teachers? Many are feeling uneasy or even frightened to return despite assurances from their districts and individual schools. Why is this? No one can assure complete safety even when precautions are taken. Anyone who has ever worked in a school knows that it is common for parents to send kids to school who are not feeling well and give them a dose of motrin. This practice undermines faith in any precautions taken. Similarly, having parents complete a safety protocol even daily means that one would have to trust that the responses are honest. Even so, since children can be asymptomatic and can spread covid in the same doses as adults, there is no way to really know what a teacher will encounter each day. For parents, they may be thinking the same things-where have teachers been? Where have their kids been? Faculty and staff (as well as parents and students) in high risk groups have a higher degree of anxiousness as the stakes are higher.
How about parents? The usual joy parents experience at the end of summer as a result of the return of their children to school will be absent this year. Remote or hybrid instruction will significantly limit in-school time and for parents of younger children or those who needs require parental oversight, a return to virtual instruction may mean a re-traumatization of that which was experienced in the spring. Parents are not only worried about the health of their students and themselves, but also if they will be able to balance their job and supporting their child at the same time.
All of the above point toward a need to put resources into supporting the mental health needs of staff, students, and families. Having the opportunity to process anxieties related to covid and the limitations in academic, social, and economic life is crucial. If it is not possible to wish away these worries, then effort must be made to change how we think about them. Questions already being posed include: When this will all end? How will I perform well enough with remote learning when I do not do well in this format? Will I be losing a year of my education? Will there be any sports this year? A prom? A class trip?
Schools have to gear up to help students and staff navigate what is looking like a difficult beginning of the school year. School counselors and psychologists will need to direct their efforts to keeping everyone “flying”. If necessary, additional help should be sought from outside professionals to support each stakeholder group. The possibility of a sudden school closure due to diagnosed cases should be part of the planning process as well as the return to school after a closure.