Back to school in 2021: We are back, but not to normal

By Leah Persky, PhD & Certified Family Life Educator  • Family Life Education Manager

For many parents, the day has arrived or, it soon will. Kids will be off to school, starting off the new academic year, the third to be impacted by the pandemic. Children and parents alike are dealing with a unique mixture of anticipation and excitement for the school year ahead, and for many, this is tinged with anxiety and uncertainty. Despite the excitement of the return to school, there may also be a sense of loss of time together and the numerous challenges of managing the risks the virus poses.

Children may demonstrate their anxiety through regressive behaviors, challenges sleeping, increased tantrums and difficult behavior in general. Some of this is normal as we transition into the fall and the new school year. There is also an additional challenge this year, as students figure out how to cope with another year of school during the pandemic. I know that many of us, myself included, are feeling a deeper sense of weariness and anger as we prepare for the third school year of pandemic life. Despite the fact that widespread vaccination could have prevented the current situation, we must still confront reality and find ways to manage the anger and support our children.

Parents have been asked to do a lot over the past year-and-a-half, and as much as we would like to tell ourselves that the pandemic is over, we must face the sad reality that it is not. Below are some things that I know many parents have been thinking about. In the spirit of “name it to tame it,” I hope that this will help provide some perspective, provide a community lens, and offer a few practical steps too. This is a challenging time for so many people right now, especially parents of younger children. We should recognize this as the starting point for discussion and action:

Cognitive dissonance: This concept comes from the field of psychology and refers to the state of being immersed in contradictory information or beliefs, which cause mental discomfort or conflict. Cognitive dissonance especially impacts the processes of framing problems and making decisions. For example, it is hard to make sense of the news on an almost daily basis. We know that COVID cases are up across the state and country, we know Delta is much more contagious and there are an increasing number of breakthrough infections. At the same time, we observe that for many people, life has returned to somewhat normal. Large gatherings, travel, indoor workout classes, shopping and eating out have returned for many; often without a mask. How do we square these changes and opportunities with the increased risks? It becomes increasingly challenging to make sense of the loosening of restrictions despite increasing infection rates, especially for children.

One common response to Cognitive dissonance is limiting new information you take in. In the long run, this won’t be helpful in the case of the pandemic. If you find yourself disengaging from any news, encourage yourself to spend at least a few minutes a week looking at information from the CDC, your state health department or other trusted sources. Knowing the rates in your area and taking the precautions that will best protect you and your family is key. Keeping up on the news in a healthy way and being aware of what’s happening in your school and community is more important than ever. For example, familiarizing yourself with the safety precautions put in place in your child’s school and sharing this information with a child who may be anxious, may be helpful.

Letting go of normal: We have been waiting for a return to normal for so long. Many of us have convinced ourselves it is here, even though we know it is not. Planning continues to be a challenge and this school year does not look like a normal one. Using this as a starting point gives ourselves a baseline of what to expect. After cancelling one too many planned events and dealing with a lot of dashed hopes, the only thing that I have found to be helpful is to change expectations and find enjoyment and gratitude for many things in our lives. With an adjusted approach to the current reality, we can hopefully find a new kind of contentment and enjoyment, even if it is of a milder variety. A less-is-more approach is how I have been thinking of it, and it is not usually easy. My family missed the opportunity to go on our planned beach vacation, but we are happy to be able to explore some new parts of Minnesota. Definitely not the same, but pretty good, all things considering. My newly adopted mantra is: Stay Flexible, Stay Grateful. My goal is for each member of my family to say one or two things they are grateful for each day, just as way to center this effort. Obviously, some days are better than others!

Spotting Anxiety: We know that returning to school is the safest option for most children now. The American Psychiatric Association (APA), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) have all recommended a safe return to school, with proper safety protocols in place. The last year-and-a-half of hybrid or online learning and the transition back to in-person learning for many can be a challenge. Children and adolescents are experiencing higher rates of mental illness and anxiety in 2021; the same is true for their parents. This means we need to increase our awareness around mental health concerns and be ready to seek help, if and when it may be needed.

We know our children best; this means we know when something seems to be not right. Children may express their anxiety and fear with disruptive behavior, changing and regressive behaviors, or just not acting like themselves. This is important to be attuned to and to spend time understanding and validating their emotions and giving them tools to feel the best they can. We cannot eliminate anxiety, but we can learn how to manage it. For more on helping kids manage anxiety check out the podcast from Life Kit at NPR.

Expect some bumps in the road, as your family transitions to the new schedule. If you are worried about your child’s behavior or feel disconnected from them and what they are experiencing, or unable to help them, reach out to a trusted professional. The Counseling team at JFCS is here to help. You can connect with them and make an appointment here.

I wish you the best of luck as you embark on this back-to-school season. Give yourself credit for how much we have all done and continue to do to support ourselves and our families. Continue the important self-care work, each day if you can, and reach out to me for a complimentary parent coaching call to make a plan around a specific challenge you are working with; for example, bed time or meal time challenges, or managing screen time. I look forward to hearing from you! Be well!