The Psychological Effects on Children Not Returning to School

Psychological effects of COVID in education BeLatina Latinx
Courtesy of Benedicte Desrus.

Many families across the country are preparing for Back to School to look a whole different this year. And many families are already in the thick of transitioning to a new form of learning, whether in person or virtually at home. 

But one thing is consistent no matter what your back-to-school scenario: the psychological effects of these tumultuous times on children cannot be overlooked. Our children are struggling. 

The stress of the past several months and the future’s uncertainty have certainly taken their toll on all of us. Still, children are suffering in their own particular way, as they are isolated from friends and teachers. They now are dealing with the anxiety associated with a very unstable and potentially unsafe school year. 

That’s the unfortunate news — that kids of all ages (and parents for that matter) will have a lot to deal with as we navigate the upcoming school year and all the new types of learning and interactions and safety measures that come with it. 

The good news — there are steps we can all take, kids, adults, and educators alike to make the transition back to schooling better, easier, safer, and more stress-free. 

There are preparations we can all make to help ease our children into their new routine and a new way of life. This way, we can all help the next generation as they embark on this new school year with the psychological, physical, and intellectual health of our kids in mind.

Schools Prepare for a New Year as Covid-19 Is Still a Threat

In various school districts across the nation, schools are preparing to reopen whether for in-person classes, a hybrid model (with a mix of schoolhouse classes and virtual learning), or distance learning. And as schools begin to open, all eyes are on those counties to see if there is a spike in cases, or if schools can open safely while protecting students and the families they go home to. It’s definitely not the kind of edge-of-your-seat action most families look forward to during the back-to-school season. 

In Georgia, schools in a suburban area north of Atlanta opened despite a growing number of cases. Shortly after reopening, nearly 1,200 students and staff members in the district were ordered to quarantine, and several schools closed their doors due to a high number of cases and the fast spread of Covid-19 among students and faculty. The story was similar in Mississippi, where 71 of 82 counties have reported positive coronavirus cases within schools. 

And while some numbers are concerning, the fact that much of the crucial data and information about the spread of Covid-19 within schools is not being reported or communicated to families is even more alarming. 

That lack of information or lack of transparency, for that matter is making it challenging to know which safety practices work, and what new precautions need to be instituted to prevent increased spread. 

“Without good data that tracks cases over time — and shows how one case turns into many cases — there’s just no way to answer that question,” said Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University and co-founder of COVID Explained, to NBC. “In January, we’ll be in the same position that we are in now, and kids still won’t be in school.”

What Parents and Educators Need to Consider for the Upcoming School Year

We are all scrambling to determine the right approach to education in the face of a confounding and threatening pandemic, and it’s more important than ever to gather as much information as possible mainly because this school year will have a profound effect on both the well-being of our children as well as adult productivity, as every work-from-home parent knows quite well. 

As parents, we don’t have all the answers, and sometimes we don’t even know what questions to ask, which is why it’s so important to seek out the advice and guidance from experts. 

Enter Dr. Michael Rich from the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH). As a pediatrician and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and an Associate Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Dr. Rich knows a thing or two about the physical, mental and social health issues associated with digital technology and digital learning for kids and adolescents. 

The Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) is on a mission to guide consumers, especially parents, through the hostile digital world leveraging their unbiased science-based, public health approach. 

Their recently published Family Digital Wellness and Return to School 2020 guide is an invaluable resource for families as they deal with the usual anxieties around back to school, which will be intensified by the uncertainties of remote learning and the risks of spreading infection.

The guide has useful tips for parents and kids from the best way to ease into mask-wearing, to the necessity for a flexible but regular routine and media multitasking risks as children learn. 

It also stresses the need to focus on our children’s mental health. After all, research shows that the pandemic has negatively affected teen mental health, with 43.7% experiencing depression and 37.4% experiencing anxiety due to how Covid-19 has disrupted their lives. 

We sat down to chat with Dr. Rich to gather as much insight as possible regarding the psychological risks to children as they prepare to return to school, whether in person or virtually. 

Dr. Rich’s advice is equally enlightening and comforting. He offers tips and tools and an expert’s perspective to help parents and kids survive their return to school and thrive in the midst of the chaos.

What do you think are the greatest health risks to focus on for children if they do return to in-person learning?

In terms of the physical health risks, the risks are partially unknown, but what we do know is that children both contract Covid-19, and they also asymptomatically carry it. And I think that probably the greatest danger is when those children who may be hale and hearty and appear healthy, go home to grandma and grandpa and bring those germs to more vulnerable family members. I think that’s concerning, plus the data we just got in the last week, that indicates that viral load does not correlate to symptoms. So, you can actually have a symptomatic person whose viral load is 100 million times smaller than an asymptomatic person. But the viral load is ultimately what we’re concerned about. It worries me that we can have very high viral loads walking around among us, which is obviously a risk, especially for children returning to schools. 

And I think that another issue with schools reopening is that we need to change our expectations. We also need to change physical plans within schools. Most schools do not have up to date HEPA HVAC systems. We really need to rethink our teaching style. This occurs whether we are doing in-person or virtual learning. Many teachers were very concerned because, in the past, so much teaching required being physically close. The kinds of up-close-and-personal interactions teachers are used to such as leaning over a student’s shoulder when they need help or comforting them when they are sad are elements of school that these teachers are mourning and that we won’t be able to see given current pandemic-related risks. 

What can schools and families do to try and minimize these risks if children are returning to schools?

To manage these risks, I think a few key things to keep in mind if kids are returning to school are:

1) Offer video tours of schools. Even for kids who are coming back to a school, they have already attended, they are not coming back to the same school they knew. Schools will look different. There will be plexiglass dividers, directional hallways and classrooms will look different. The idea of the video tour in advance will be to alleviate parents’ anxiety and orient the child to the school.

2) Hand sanitize often. The single most important thing would be to ensure that during any environmental transitions within the school, such as from home to classroom or classroom to lunchroom, etc., children hand sanitize at every touchpoint. Hand sanitizing is an efficient way to keep children as safe and germ-free as possible. 

3) Mask wearing is really important. Kids are naturally empathetic. So, explain that masks are not only about protecting them but more about protecting everybody else. This is about protecting their classmates, their teachers, and their own families when they come home. Personalize your child’s mask to minimize the trading or sharing of masks. 

4) Plan accordingly and have reasonable expectations. We should approach this thoughtfully so that schools are not set up to fail and won’t be disrupted two weeks into the school year. The disruption in our children’s routine is what we really want to avoid. We’re seeing that while people really want a hybrid or in-person schooling, they also realize that as soon as we get one positive case, we’re going to be back to virtual learning. So is the disruption worth it, or shouldn’t we go into the back-to-school season in a mindful way to do virtual learning as best we can?

Do you believe that children are suffering from anxiety and fear over returning to schools in person? Which do you find more concerning — the stress associated with going back to school or virtual learning isolation? 

I think children are absolutely suffering from fear and anxiety during these times. And I think it’s how we respond to these challenges what is going to shape the future. How we, as adults, behave around our children matters. If we are fearful, if we are hopeless and helpless, that is what they will learn. If we are open and transparent about our concerns and feelings from a glass half full approach, that is what they will learn. We need to approach this with the perspective of “how can we make the best of this?” I’m hopeful we can all live out the mantra of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. 

What are the unique challenges and issues for kids of various age groups who are forced to do virtual learning, without the important social interactions of school?

In terms of various age groups, social-emotional risks are different. For younger kids, the social-emotional relationships at school are so important because it’s the first time kids are presenting themselves to the world independently, without mom and dad by their side. They are figuring out who they are, how to behave, who they like, who they don’t like, who doesn’t like them. All of that important growth is a part of social skills 101 that happens in school. 

With high-school-aged kids, this is a particularly inopportune time to be isolated at home, because for them, the normative developmental experience at this age is to want to get the hell away from mom and dad and get out of the house. The lockdown was particularly hard for these teenagers. They need to relate to their peers, and they need to step out into the world far away from their parents. They still need their parents, and they still listen to us, and most importantly, they still watch us. But they want their distance, so being stuck at home without peer interaction is challenging. My big concern is around how teenagers are doing, and how can we help these adolescents be open and communicative about how they are feeling. Their instinct is to go underground, and it plays out in terms of substance abuse, eating disorders, or a variety of anxieties. 

In both situations, for kids of all ages, the way we behave at home and the behavior we model for our children has to be really thoughtful and mindful. Because even though children may only listen to about one percent of what we say, they follow 100 percent of what we do.

What do you think are the potential pros and cons of so much screen time for those children participating in virtual learning this school year? And what can parents do to make the most of online learning?

I think one of the potential positives that can come out of all of this is that before kids saw the online space as a playground only. To a certain degree in the spring, and certainly this fall, kids will be relating to their screens as important tools. From a practical sense, one of the things I’m hoping is not only will they see these devices as tools to be used for communicating and learning and connecting, but they’ll also know when enough is enough. They’ll know when their devices should be turned off for other activities like riding bikes or shooting hoops or other outdoor play. I think one of the benefits is also that kids will become more aware of their own Zoom burnout. The virtual space will become a place where they don’t want to spend all their time because, after six hours of online school, they will sense they need a break from their screens and will opt for other activities to balance that time. 

I think that we have to structure our kids’ time with their computers, especially when they are participating in virtual learning. One thing that happened in the spring was that kids totally abandoned their normal routines due to virtual learning — they were sleeping late, staying up late, and they were messing up their circadian rhythm. We need to have a regular schedule that includes periods, just like a school period, of about 45 minutes, because that is the length of a child’s attention span. Kids need to stick to that school routine. You don’t get twice as much by doing 90 minutes of work instead of a 45-minute class session, especially online. There are diminishing returns, and parents and teachers need to realize that. We need to build in specific times for classes with specific breaks in between to move around, get outside, have a snack, etc. 

In the same vein, it’s really important for kids to have a dedicated workspace. It can be at a desk or in an office space or even at a countertop or table right next to mom and dad who are also working from home. And then they’ll have their entertainment space, which should be different. Moving to a new space changes the vibe and changes the expectations of what to do there. And we definitely have to help our kids have only one window open at a time on their screens. Multi-tasking does not exist; the human brain is single-tracked, and what these kids are doing is split tasking, which prevents them from integrating what they are actually learning into their knowledge base. They’re not doing the reflective thinking they should be doing if they’re trying to do too much at once.

If a school system is operating on a strictly virtual or distanced model, what can parents do to support their children from a mental, emotional, social, and academic perspective?

We’re going to have to be both creative and resilient as we get through this. There are so many things in flux right now that parents and educators are going to have to be as flexible as possible. I think that while we need to be flexible, we also need to be prepared and provide our kids with a reliable routine. Because that structure helps reduce anxiety because they know what to expect. I think that’s one of the hardest things about this pandemic — we don’t know what to expect, we don’t know how long this will go on and how it’s going to play out. There are so many unknowns, and the more that we can do to anchor ourselves and our kids in routine the better we’ll all be. Even simple things like sitting down to a family dinner can go a long way. And parents — remember to take care of number one. When you’re traveling on a plane and the oxygen masks come down, you have to put your own mask on first. Because you’re no good to your kids if you’re trying to take care of them at the expense of your own mental health. 

And it’s also important for parents to try and step out of the role as parents so they can help with their schooling. There needs to be some separation of responsibility when the context changes. In some ways, parents are being shoved into new roles that they don’t necessarily feel confident enough to do, such as teaching. And if they are unable to reframe their relationship from parent to teacher, and essentially say “now I’m your teacher helping you with math, in an hour I’ll be your parent again,” then they’ll struggle in both roles. Trying to be a parent and teacher at the same time is an impossible task, and neither role gets fulfilled particularly well when we try to do both all the time.