Back-to-school tensions run high for families amid rise in COVID cases: 'The last year and a half has been brutal for kids'

The transition back to school won't necessarily be easy
The transition back to school won't be easy for many younger children and their parents as COVID cases rise among the unvaccinated. (Getty Images)

We're still in the middle of summer, but school is already on the minds of some families. Major retailers are running ads for back-to-school shopping and there’s a general sense that families should be gearing up for the fall.

But of course, there’s still a global pandemic happening. In the U.S., the Delta variant is fueling a rise in cases among the unvaccinated — including children under the age of 12, who aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19. That can make the fall feel a little uncertain for younger children — and some people are already speaking out about it.

“Really having a hard time accepting that kids sacrificed 16+ months of their childhood, 2 school years of normalcy, mostly to protect adults from a virus that they’re now choosing NOT to get vaccinated against, making kids who can’t vax more vulnerable & holding everyone hostage,” high school English teacher Jessica Kirkland wrote in a tweet that’s now gone viral.

“Watching numbers go up, every single state with rising cases again, mask restrictions coming back all because these people won’t grow up and get a shot and realizing all the struggle of the last 2 school years was for NOTHING. Kids carried that sacrifice & it was squandered,” she added.

Another person wrote, “My teen son just asked me what’s the chance we have to quarantine again. My older son said he’s going to college this year no matter what. It’s been pure hell for them and their teachers, and if I got near an antivaxxer today I’d probably end up in jail. I’m furious.”

“From the beginning no one has cared about kids. Every decision has been about the economy and business,” someone else said. “Despite the effects the current decisions/variants have on children, that will continue to be the motivation. Children are collateral damage for a thriving economy."

Related video: Parents weigh sending kids back to school without COVID vaccine

Anxieties are at a high pitch, but many experts say that it’s often the parents who are more stressed about school during a pandemic than the children. “Students have been overall very resilient to the changes they have been through,” clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life. "Interestingly, they have changed their attachment to school. The common attitude of kids —'I hate school' — has shifted to 'I miss school.'"

Parents, though, have suffered a “major emotional disruption,” Mayer says. “Parents’ anxiety is through the roof,” he says. “This has resulted in a tremendous increase in mental health issues in parents.”

For older children who are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, this school year may feel more like it has in the past, Dr. Robert Hamilton, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., and host of the podcast The Hamilton Review: Where Kids and Culture Collide, tells Yahoo Life. But the situation will likely be different for those who are younger than 12.

Still, getting kids back in classrooms is critical, Hamilton says. “Some of these kids have not had meaningful interpersonal relationships for a long time now,” he says.

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that children attend in-person learning during the pandemic, although their recommendations on how to do it safely differ slightly. Earlier this week, the AAP issued guidelines that recommend universal masking for children older than 2 in school, whether they are vaccinated or not. That’s slightly different from advice from the CDC, which states that “masks should be worn inside by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated.

Of course, the transition back to school won’t necessarily be easy — for younger children or their parents. To try to prepare your child for a return to a school year that may be uncertain, Hamilton recommends sitting them down for a talk. “Tell them that their teachers and mommy and daddy are making this experience very safe, so they don’t need to be afraid,” he says.

When it comes to masking, some schools are requiring it and some are not, Hamilton says. “In the majority of classrooms across the country, you will probably see some social distancing and masking.”

If your school district doesn’t require masking, it’s a good idea to talk to your child to let them know that they may still see some people wearing masks, Dr. Robert Keder, a pediatrician at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s important to let them know that people wear masks for different reasons and that’s their choice,” he says.

And, if your child is frustrated at the idea of wearing a mask in school again, Keder suggests letting them know that relief is on the way. “Tell them that we’re hoping the vaccine will be ready for kids sometime around the winter and that scientists are working on it,” he says.

You can also do a general check-in with your child about how they're feeling about going back to school. “It is important for parents to ask children what they are most excited about going back to school and what are they most nervous about,” Nicole Cobb, an associate professor of the practice of human and organizational development at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College, tells Yahoo Life. “It is also important to validate the many mixed feelings a child has about the return to school. Often adults make assumptions about how children are feeling and it may be projecting what makes us nervous rather than what is actually concerning the child. Once we know what is bothering a child, we can address their specific concerns directly.”

Keder says that it’s important for parents to be “real and honest” with their kids about the status quo, but also “first check your own emotional response to make sure that you’re doing OK.”

“The past year and a half has been really anxiety-provoking,” he says. “A little bit of anxiety is helpful, but too much anxiety can be crushing and prevent you from being able to plan.”

Keder suggests that parents make sure that they get the facts about COVID-19 from trusted sources like the CDC and the AAP. “It’s also a good idea to know your school district’s policies and what COVID-19 cases look like in your area,” he says. Knowing all of this information can help lower anxiety levels, allowing you to feel prepared to go into the school year, Keder says.

Another way to lower your stress levels is to plan things out. “Have a plan, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” Steven L. Pastyrnak, section chief of pediatric psychology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. “If kids need to switch quickly again to virtual learning, know how to best support them. Identify a place in the house where they can work and check in on them regularly throughout the day. Make a plan for how you will adjust to your work schedule should someone at home get sick or if the kids need to switch to virtual learning. The more that we are prepared, the better we will feel in control.”

You can also prepare by buying extra masks and hand sanitizer now, Keder says. “You don’t need to stockpile like it’s the end of the world, but having supplies — masks, a reasonable number of backup things that make you feel comfortable — is totally OK and a good thing,” he says. “A little bit of anxiety motivates us to be safe and prepared.”

Overall, experts stress the importance of getting kids back to in-person learning. “The last year and a half has been brutal for kids,” Hamilton says. “The more we can do to normalize their lives, the better.”

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