This is undoubtedly an unusual back-to-school season for both kids and parents, full of more excitement, anxiety, and nerves than usual. From preschoolers to high schoolers, emotions are heightened. “I haven’t seen so many people for more than a year,” said the wonderful high school student who sometimes babysits for my toddler. She’s going to be a junior this year, and she feels like so much has changed since she last set foot in her school as a freshman, an eternity ago in teenage time. “It’s such a mix; I’m excited and also really nervous. I have no idea what being back in that building will feel like.”
She’s certainly not alone. As kids across the country head back to school, or to school for the very first time, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage. The landscape is markedly different than when schools first shut down in 2020 and the world came to a panicked halt, but with the Delta variant, surging cases, and ongoing legal disputes about mask mandates, there is plenty of uncertainty about what the school year ahead will bring.
Graphic designer and mom of three Amanda Linder is thrilled about sending her kids back to school next week. “We know so much with more experience and with science a year later,” she said. The past months of remote learning have been incredibly hard on her whole family, and she believes the return to in-person school will benefit them immensely. “We’re all craving some normalcy,” she explained. “I trust our school system. For us, the cons of exposure are belittled by the pros of socializing and getting out of the house.” After all, academics are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what school promises, from structure in families’ days to nurturing kids’ development in a myriad of meaningful ways.
Entrepreneur and mother of two Milana Sobol is feeling more uneasy about embarking on the school year ahead. At the beginning of the pandemic, she and her family moved from their home in New York City to her partner’s hometown in Long Island, planning for the change to be temporary. Eighteen months later, they’re still there and feel unsure about their next move, or what will be the best decision for their family longer term.
“There’s so much uncertainty in the world. It’s hard not to feel completely confused and like we don’t know what we’re doing,” Sobol told me. For now, they’re planning on staying in Long Island for another school year. A silver lining: the small, relatively affordable private school they found has been a big positive for their son, as he’s flourished during the past year, where he was able to learn in person except for one ten-day quarantine when a classmate tested positive for Covid-19.
Everyone I spoke to is feeling a whole lot of feelings, a mix of unease, worry, and hope. Here are three ways to make this transition just a little smoother for little ones to teenagers, and their families:
Kids are eerily good at picking up on your mental and emotional state. For me, the first pillar of self-care is getting enough sleep. When I’m exhausted, I’m a lousy partner and distracted mom. Sometimes I feel frustrated that I require so much maintenance to show up in a way I’m proud of, from getting exercise to making time for creativity, but I know I’m setting a good example for my daughter for prioritizing my own wellbeing. Taking good care of yourself is not going to make parenting magically easy, especially right now, but it will make coping with the inevitable ups and downs feel more manageable.
I’m prepping myself and my kid for the year ahead by visiting the school ahead of time and staging a sort of practice drop-off—a tip from her new teacher. I’ll talk her through the place we’ll drop her off, pick her up, and we’ll even play at her school’s (lovely) playground. It will help reassure both of us that we have a plan, and make the first real drop-off a tiny bit less intimidating.
Preparation goes for the bigger picture, too. Being informed about the risks and benefits of a return to in-person school during the pandemic can be a powerful reminder that you’re making the best possible decision for your family during a difficult time. It also helps to have a contingency plan in case your kid needs to stay home for a period of time.
That goes for your own feelings and those of your kids. Ask your children what they’re looking forward to, and what they’re nervous about. Talk them through other times they felt scared and unsure, and what they did to walk through that situation. Naming specific, granular emotions can make experiencing them less scary.
Whether they're sad, scared, or excited, helping kids put words to what they're feeling helps them normalize and process these big emotions. This is true for grownups, too. As for me, my daughter is starting preschool for the first time in just a few days, and I am equal parts thrilled and anxious. Talking through these feelings with my family and friends helps me feel one notch less overwhelmed.
Keep the communication channels open when it comes to your school, your family, and your kid. Whatever your child’s reaction to returning to school, foster conversation and curiosity. Ask about the highs and lows of their day. Keep checking in, and keep expressing your own feelings as well. Stay in touch with their teachers.
If they express fear or anxiety, validate their feelings and encourage them to continue being honest with you. Do everything you can to assure your kids, remind them of the health guidelines their school is following or that they’re not the only kid who feels totally awkward about asking someone else to hang out. For children too young for these complex conversations, like my own, I’m doing my best to give chunks of uninterrupted attention (even if they’re brief, because life gets in the way), plus plenty of hugs. I’m paying attention to her nonverbal cues and doing my best to remind her that she is loved and safe.
Listen and know that your child is listening to you, too. No matter what this school year brings, you’ll face it with courage and love together.