GUIDE: Transitioning Back to School After Quarantine

How to deal with the understandable re-entry anxiety
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As back-to-school season approaches, children and parents have mixed emotions. According to a recent survey by Dynata, 24 percent of parents said they won’t send their kids back to school, even if permitted to do so. Thirty-five percent believe this fall is too soon to return, and 24% indicated they’d rather their children return to school in January 2021. No matter how the 2020-2021 school calendar shakes out, kids will need to get reacclimated to a traditional classroom setting.

With school still a few weeks away, now is a good time for parents to prepare children for the school year ahead and address any fears they have about returning.


Common Fears

While many children are excited to go back to school, it’s unrealistic for parents or educators to think they have no fears or concerns about re-entering the classroom. “They hear adults speaking about the pandemic,” says Samantha Goodwin, LMSW, an intermediate school social worker in Portland, Michigan. “They are watching the news and seeing posts on social media regarding all of this. They understand school this year was not normal due to this illness.”

There are three big reasons children may be anxious about returning to the classroom:

Academic Concerns

“Some children may be anxious about being unprepared for academic demands due to difficulties with online learning,” explains Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of several books including Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends. These insecurities may be compounded by the “summer slide,” a term used to describe a loss of knowledge in math and reading, especially at a grade school level due to the summer break. Also, students need to re-adjust to test taking and grading (many schools moved to pass/fail during remote learning) both of which were stressors for students before COVID-19.

Social Concerns

While many children look forward to seeing their peers again, others may be fearful. Michele Borba Ed.D, the author of Unselfie; Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, says, “Introverts may have welcomed this time home with Mom and Dad and be especially anxious about returning to school.” Even children that loved to hang out with friends may feel awkward after months of social distancing.

Fear About Getting Sick

After months of being told to socially distance, it’s understandable for children to be fearful about getting ill when they return to school. The fear is especially intense for children who lost a loved one to COVID-19, live with someone with underlying health conditions, or are immuno-compromised themselves.


How Parents Can Help Kids Prepare

As Borba points out, children thrive on predictability and routine, both of which were lost these past few months. To re-gain their sense of control, children need to be prepared for what to expect and understand any changes. Children also need a safe environment to express their concerns. Here are some tips for parents:

Outline the New School Rules

School may not look like it did before COVID-19. Make sure children are prepared for the changes. Teachers and students may be required to wear masks, class sizes may be smaller, and social distancing may be mandated during lunch or recess. “Try and layout their day at school and what they should expect,” Goodwin says. “This allows kids to get used to the ideas in their minds so that on the first day of school, they are not shocked about the changes.”

Calm Health Concerns

Share age-appropriate information from reputable sources about how the virus is transmitted. Explain to children that their school implemented rules to protect the school from getting sick. Remind them about simple ways (washing their hands, not touching their face, refraining from giving “high fives”) they can help everyone stay healthy. “While we can’t guarantee safety, we can talk to our kids about the idea of ‘reasonable caution,’ which involves finding the middle ground, where we’re not dangerously casual but also not paralyzed by fear,” Kennedy-Moore explains.

Discuss Fears

“Ask your child, ‘What have you heard about going back to school?’ and ‘How are you feeling about heading back?’,” Kennedy-Moore says. “You may need to correct some misunderstandings for your child.”

An open dialogue between parents and children is crucial. “By sharing their fears aloud, parents can help our children to understand them better,” Goodwin says. “They can weed out the irrational ones and focus on finding solutions.”

Borba suggests creating a “feelings thermometer” for children to rate their fears. “From there, encourage them to brainstorm what they can do to calm themselves down.”

Start Preparing Earlier Than Usual

Goodwin suggests talking with children about returning to the classroom early, often, and as a positive thing. Re-establish bedtimes and wake-up times a week or two before school starts to get them used to being on a schedule. If they worry about being behind academically, have them do some extra reading or math or hire a tutor to work with them so they feel more confident.

Borba advises parents to “chunk it out” and help kids get ready in stages. For example, don’t let the first day of school be the first time they see their peers. Set up playdates with classmates before school starts. If the school requires masks, practice wearing it for an hour and then two. If your child feels they will look silly or be embarrassed, remind them that everyone will be in the same boat.

Don’t Expect “Normal” Right Away

“Students may worry they’ll never catch up academically or be stressed that their chance of an athletic scholarship has vanished since their season was canceled due to COVID-19,” Borba says. Be empathetic and supportive. Remind them that some events like prom or a spring soccer tournament have been lost, but that much of their old life will come back with time. Explain that it may take a few practices to feel confident when they return to a sport. They might not get stellar grades right away or feel comfortable going to a party in someone’s home, and that’s OK.

Manage Our Own Anxiety

“There’s a concept in psychology called ‘social referencing,’” Kennedy-Moore explains. “For example, when a child sees a dog for the first time, he looks at the dog, then looks at his grown-up to see, ‘Should I be scared here?’ If the adult is calm and positive, it’s easier for the child to approach the dog. The same is true with heading back to school. Kids will be looking at their parents’ responses to gauge their degree of danger. The calmer we are, the easier it will be for them to make this transition.”

Dr. Robin Goodman, a New York-based psychologist says, “The number one rule for parents is to monitor and manage their own anxiety. Parents cannot listen effectively to their children or be helpful if they don’t have their own feelings under control.”

Beware of Extenuating Circumstances

If a child had anxiety before COVID-19, their issues might be elevated by the current situation. “A child with social anxiety may have seemed to be coping better when school was out of session and they were spending all day home with Mom and Dad,” Goodman says. “Returning to the classroom may result in a backslide of their mental health.”


When to Seek Help

Some degree of back-to-school jitters should be expected. To determine if their anxiety is a more significant issue, Borba suggests the “TOO Index” to evaluate:

  • Is the behavior TOO different from his normal, typical behavior?
  • Does it last TOO long (especially every day for at least TWO weeks)
  • Does it “spill over” into TOO many other areas (school, friends, activities, home)?

Signs can vary from child to child and include headaches, stomach aches, hair twirling, an inability to sleep or sleeping too much, not eating, or not wanting to do activities they used to enjoy. “You may see your child resisting going to school, arguing, or coming up with excuses about why she needs to stay home,” Kennedy-Moore explains. Adds Goodwin, “A lot of times kids hold in their stress and appear ‘moody’, they may cry more often, or not show emotion at all. It’s important to pay attention. Many times, the reason for anxiety doesn’t make a lot of sense, that’s totally normal.”

In the end, the best tool at a parents’ disposal when it comes to back to school is time. “We can offer lots of empathy,” Kennedy-Moore says, “but assuming we’ve decided it’s reasonably safe for our kids to go back to school, we need to trust in their ability to cope with that transition.”