Back to School Separation Anxiety: Are Kids (and Parents) Ready for In-Person Learning?
As many schools mainly return to in-person learning for this fall, parents may have concerns about whether their children are ready to go back to school. Many children, especially younger children, have spent the majority of the coronavirus pandemic at home or engaging in remote learning.
Transitioning away from virtual learning and heading back to school might create added stress for kids and parents alike. Children might experience separation anxiety about spending the majority of their day away from their caregivers, and parents might worry about their children’s health and safety with the ongoing spread of COVID-19.
In this article, we’ll discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the Fall 2022 school year. We’ll also go over what you can do to make sure that you and your child feel comfortable and confident on your first school day!
Related: Learning Loss Post-COVID: How to Help Kids Beat the Summer Slide
The Impact of COVID-19 on Education
COVID-19 had a huge impact on children’s education and daily lives. Many parents struggled to manage their child’s virtual learning, along with working remotely full-time and managing disruptions to their work day.
After 2+ years of the coronavirus pandemic, many of us developed a regular routine amidst these changes. Now, returning to in-person learning means another disruption to that routine.
Safety Measures to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19
The Fall 2022 school year will look very different than last year did. Public health requirements and recommendations may vary greatly depending on the state you live in and your school district’s policies.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released messaging around safety measures that public schools should engage in to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Recommended mitigation strategies include things like encouraging kids and school staff to stay home when sick, engaging in regular handwashing, regularly disinfecting high-touch surfaces, and encouraging vaccinations.
The CDC also recommends that all K-12 schools have indoor masking requirements. Despite this, most schools in the U.S. will have more relaxed masking policies, reserving the option to re-instate masking requirements if COVID-19 cases rise. This marks a big change from last year and might increase some of the anxiety that parents feel when sending their children back to school.
On top of this, COVID-19 vaccination rates among school-age children remain relatively low. While many parents felt a wave of relief with the release of a vaccine for children under 5 years of age, CNN estimates that less than half of children ages 5-18 have received a full course of the vaccine.
Preparing Your Child for In-Person School
The key to ensuring that you and your child are ready for in-person instruction means adjusting to a “new normal.” As children return to school, here are some things you can do to prepare them and support their well-being.
- Talk about how they’re feeling. Your child might be feeling a range of different emotions - excitement, anxiety, fear, and anticipation. Make space to talk about those emotions and validate what they’re feeling.
- Visit your child’s school building together so they can see their classroom and meet their teacher. This is especially important for children who are attending a new school.
- Develop a back-to-school plan. Whether your child is attending elementary school or high school, the first week of school can feel very stressful. Having a plan can help relieve some of that stress.
- Create a drop-off routine. Routines help children feel safe and know what to expect. This can reduce the anxiety they might experience during this transitionary period. Develop a “good-bye” routine with your child, like a secret handshake, a hug, a high-five, or a special phrase. Be sure to stick to this routine.
Taking Care of Yourself
Don’t forget to make sure that you’re prepared for your child to return to school. As a parent, it can be easy to spend all of your time focusing on what your child needs without making space and consideration for your own needs. Here are some things to consider:
- Find an outlet for your feelings. It’s so important to have a safe space to express what you’re feeling and process your emotions. A spouse/partner, therapist, trusted friend, or journal can all provide this kind of outlet.
- Focus on what you can control. The coronavirus pandemic put so much outside of our control. One way to reduce anxiety and channel a sense of calm is to focus on what is within your control. You can control whether you vaccinate your child, whether you ask them to wear a mask at school, and how you support them returning to school.
- Decide whether in-person schooling is right for your family. You may decide that sending your child back to school this year isn’t the best fit for right now. Whether you prefer to stick to virtual learning or decide to homeschool your child, the only person who can make the right decision for your family is you.
For even more advice to ease your and your kids’ minds as they go back to school, check out our COVID Safety Tips for Parents as Kids Head Back to School!
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Dr. Chelsea Hetherington (she/her) is a developmental psychologist, writer, coach, and consultant.