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Returning to School as the Pandemic Draws on: Addressing Concerns, Fears and Worries

  • August 11, 2021
  • Patients and Families

Many children and parents are eagerly anticipating returning to school in the fall. However, across the country, communities and families are challenged by the prospect of sending children back to school amidst the ongoing pandemic uncertainties. These unprecedented times have impacted us all. You and members of your community may be wondering: what should I consider when choosing to return to the classroom? How do we keep students and teachers safe? How are students coping mentally and emotionally? How can we tell when a child or teen might need help and support from a professional?  How can we make sure children can access the help they need?

When considering a return to the classroom, we cannot take a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Some children may be quite resilient in the face of changes and challenges of the past year. Others may struggle with isolation or have faced overwhelming losses and economic hardships. With the extensive impacts of the pandemic, schools may face an increase in the number of students coping with anxiety and depression, even suicidality.

Maintaining the mental health and well-being of students and their families, teachers, and school stuff is critical and should be a top priority. Here are some recommended tips for families when considering a back-to-school approach this fall:

  • Keep a regular daily schedule
  • Set clear and consistent boundaries on class and homework schedules
  • Stay connected with friends and family
  • Get fresh air and exercise
  • Stay informed from reliable sources
  • Be mindful of how much time your children/teens spend on social media and how it impacts them
  • Get creative and share your ideas with other parents
  • If you feel your child/teen is struggling, reach out to your child’s school counselor or health care provider

Finally, it is important to be mentally prepared for sudden changes to happen again. This could be as simple as having conversations about how you would respond and manage if school had to be virtual again or about how you can monitor what is happening in your community or school system. Change is tough for everyone, not just students, so make sure that as a parent/caregiver that you are also taking care of yourself.

For Teachers and School Staff

The rise of mental health concerns and other distress due to this pandemic cannot be overstated. Families and school communities need to notice when a student is moving away from their typical behavior. Here’s what school staff and teachers should do when a student is showing disruptive or withdrawn behaviors that appear to be outside of that student's typical actions

  • Reach out to the student and ask what has happened
  • Start a conversation with the student to check-in/li>
  • Show you care
  • Assess for safety and ask “are you thinking of ending your life?”/li>
  • Determine if further support is needed for the student
  • If further support is needed, then you need to act on it, through school or community resources.

Crisis Resources

Training for Schools from the APA Foundation

The American Psychiatric Association Foundation provides training for schools on how to support students’ mental health and well-being. For more information on the Foundations’ Notice. Talk. Act. at School program, visit apafdn.org/schools.

CDC Guidance for K-12 Schools

  • Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority.
  • Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
  • Students, teachers, and staff should stay home when they have signs of any infectious illness and be referred to their healthcare provider for testing and care.

Important Note: This is only a partial list. See the full, updated CDC K-12 Guidance here.

By Christopher Chun-Seeley, M.S.W., APA Foundation, and Rana Elmaghraby, M.D.

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