As the COVID-19 crisis begins to calm down here in British Columbia, our “bubbles” of friends and loved ones are expanding, vaccine developments are gaining momentum, and businesses are re-opening with social distancing protocols. Now, many of us are trying to decide whether or not we should send our kids back to school. This can be a tough decision for many as we balance the worry over our kids’ health and safety with the scientific data of low infection rates on Vancouver Island. On one hand, we’re desperate to get our children back to their normal social and academic lives, while on the other, we’re wondering if it’s still too soon.
Here are some thinking points to help you come to your decision more clearly and ensure your kids’ mental wellness thrives:
Know the Facts
The very first thing to do is research. Listen to our nation’s top doctors and provincial health leaders. They want the best for our society as a whole and they are the ones to get your information from (not your mother-in-law, the internet, or other parents). Learn what you can and try to identify for yourself what would make you feel most comfortable. Parents need to understand the relative risk in their community and weigh that against the benefits of getting their kids back into school (and being able to work without kids underfoot). Look into your child’s school’s press releases and protocols and ask school officials about what precautions they’re taking if anything is unclear. You need to feel confident that your child’s school has done everything they can to ensure your child’s safety.
Consider Your Child’s Age
Older children will have a better understanding of what physical distancing is and why it’s important. For younger children, it will be nearly impossible for supervisors to keep them 6 feet apart, much less not to touch their faces. If your child is young and you aren’t confident that they’ll be able to keep a healthy distance at school, it might be best just to wait. For older kids and teens, though, they can competently understand how to keep a safe distance and can likely be trusted to do so.
Take Things a Step at a Time
We can’t solve all the world’s problems in a day—especially this one. As tempting as it might be to try and plan weeks, even months ahead, doing so can feel futile during this crisis. The situation changes daily, and it’s important that we go into every day with a fresh, open mind. The world’s best doctors and scientists are working round-the-clock to find vaccines and treatments for this virus—one that is new and about which so much is still unknown. Try to be patient with those around you as we all increase our resilience through this crisis. This is an incredibly difficult time for many, as we worry about money, childcare, our relationships, or aging parents that we haven’t been able to hug in months. Many of us are stressed—and the best thing we can do for ourselves, our kids, and our families is to take each day one at a time, including your child’s return to school. We all have to be more patient and present in the moment as we buy the world’s researchers more time to beat this virus.
Let Your Kids Be Kids
Be careful that your kids don’t overhear you discussing your detailed worries about considering their potential return to school. The absolute best thing you can do for your kids, today and every day, is to allow them to be kids as much as possible. Don’t project your anxiety—your kids’ emotional coping mechanisms haven’t fully developed yet. Overhearing adults talk about scary things like death counts and infection rates can consume children’s minds and increase their anxiety. If we imagine how scary this pandemic has been for adults, consider how it would feel as a child. Kids also tend to worry about the health and safety of their parents—if they express this, make sure you assure them that your family is all safe at home and that you will all be ok. If your child’s feeling particularly down, acknowledge and validate their feelings—but then shift the energy. Don’t let your worries impede your child’s overall mental wellness—we want them to be vigilant, but not to share their parents’ worries. Do everything you can to create a warm, positive, and encouraging home environment.
Be a Good Role Model
Whether or not you do decide to send your kids back to school, continue to be a healthy role model for your kids. Practice physical distancing outside of the home at all times, and if your child sees you violate distancing protocols, explain why. Keep modelling healthy physical and emotional behaviour—they will be looking to you for cues on how anxious and scared they should be.
Bookend Your Child’s Day with Morning Pep Talks & Evening Debriefs
Keep things positive and joyous in the home—gently remind your kids about the importance of social distancing in the morning, and have a check-in with them about their feelings in the evening. If your kids are back at school, ask them how their day was, what the best thing that happened was, what they’re enjoying learning in school, and so on. Ask them if they’re having fun and if they feel safe and comfortable. Explore if anything’s bothering or worrying them—this is your time to help your kids process what’s happening in their lives and resolve any anxieties they might have.
• When deciding whether or not to send your kids back to school, ask them about their thoughts too. Help them develop a sense of agency and autonomy—genuinely consider and address their concerns and points of view.
• Teenagers are particularly vulnerable emotionally during this time—many of their graduations, proms, trips, and sporting and social events have been cancelled. As a young person this can feel catastrophically disappointing. Make sure you keep an extra-close eye on them—teen depression often presents as persistent irritability. If you’re starting to get concerned, consider getting them some professional help.
• Remember that it’s probably confusing for kids to go from having to stay away from everyone entirely, to staying away from most people with a select few exceptions, and finally to returning to school around lots of kids. Explain to them that as we get control of the virus, there is less risk to us and therefore our “bubbles” can get bigger.
• Finally, remember that kids are incredibly resilient. There might be some initial awkwardness with their friends and teachers when they return, but in time they will find their footing once more. Younger kids have probably enjoyed all this extra time with their parents during isolation—try to bring some of the new traditions and routines you created into our developing “new normal.”