Parental Anxiety Around Back To School: We’re All Feeling It

As another school year during the coronavirus pandemic approaches, parents again face their fears – this time with a new variant swirling.


When I think of the school year ahead, my thoughts ping from one extreme to another: I hope they all are required to wear masks. I hope they won’t have to wear masks all day. I hope the kids get to gather in the cafeteria again. I hope they don’t let the kids gather too much. I hope the kids get to interact normally in the classroom again. I hope the kids aren’t all over each other.

These thoughts start swirling around 3 a.m. when I inevitably wake up. Based on chats with friends, I know I’m not the only one fraught with parental anxiety. 

Like many children in the U.S., my kids, ages 6 and 10, haven’t been in a classroom since March 2020. My oldest attended her fourth grade year remotely, and we gave my youngest an unplanned “gap year” between pre-K and kindergarten, thinking that by the start of the 2021–2022 her class would be in-person.

We all wanted to believe that, didn’t we? We just needed to survive one really rough school year and then the worst of the coronavirus experience would be behind us.


Continued uncertainty


Last May, with shots in our arms and COVID case rates plummeting, it seemed like that vision would become a reality. But now as the Delta variant brings increased contagiousness and breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, the run up to this school year is feeling much like deja vu from 2020. Cue the anxiety dreams. 

To be fair, it’s not exactly the same. Vaccinations will keep hospitalizations and deaths down during the predicted Delta-driven wave of infections, thankfully. And we have more knowledge about how the virus is transmitted than we did a year ago. We also have major organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC presenting compelling cases for the primacy of in-person learning, a case that was not as well built a year ago leaving many of us to make questionable trade-offs based on nonexistent data. 

Even still, we have no idea what to expect from the coming school year, especially for those of us with kids too young to be eligible for vaccination.


Parental concerns


If I were to make a list of specific parental concerns during a pandemic, you’d be scrolling through this article forever. So I’ll categorize them instead:

  • Health and safety:  Will our children be able to avoid COVID infections? If they do get infected, what is the prognosis – especially as new variants appear? Really, truly what is the risk/reward trade-off for kids our particular age? 
  • Developmental needs:  What are our kids’ developmental needs this far into a pandemic? Can they be met while safety restrictions are in place? Which restrictions need to be lifted to prioritize mental and emotional wellness over health?
  • Re-learning social interactions: How can we help our kids learn or re-learn how to socialize with peers? Will they remember how to share? Can they handle having things not go their way after months of having more personalized schedules? Will they manage the physical demands of classroom life, including long days, scheduled snack breaks and distracting noises around them?


Regression and plateaus


Like our son, many kids have few or no memories of group learning, even if they attended childcare and/or preschool for years. Being home or on a hybrid schedule has become the norm to them, making us feel like we’re starting all over again as we gear them up for full-time, in-person learning. In addition, many kids have regressed during the pandemic, undoing milestones they had reached, and/or plateauing in their social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development. 


Easing back into group settings


What can we do? Ease them in the best we can. For our part, we chose to send our two kids to day camps this summer explicitly to give them practice with skills they may have forgotten. Best to first do this in a lower stakes, lower stress environment than school, if possible. The instructors who had our son in camp were greeted with a long email from me, warning them of all the ways my son had regressed and stagnated. He might be six in birth years, I wrote in apology, but he was still doing some things like the four-year-old he was when the pandemic struck. Gritted teeth emojis followed. 


Bouncing back despite it all


The good news is that if there’s one truth to be gleaned from the study of developmental psychology it’s this: children are remarkably resilient. By and large, regardless of circumstance, children bounce back from adversity – even horrific adversity – often in incredible ways. The data shows this time and again, situation after situation. 

That’s because developmental processes always take the lead. Development is like water that inevitably finds its way downhill. The natural order is progression, and even if halted for a period of time, development will occur rapidly as soon as conditions allow, making up for losses and accelerating in short order.

This is exactly what we observed in our son. After just two weeks of day camp, he’d not only made up for regressions but had gone through literally months’ worth of maturation. This was especially true socially and emotionally. Our son had regressed in toileting days after the pandemic caused his preschool to close down, insisting that a parent be in the room every single time he went to the bathroom. We thought this would last a month, maybe two, and so at first we went along with it. Fifteen months and many prolonged tantrums later, we were still accompanying him. Then, within one day of camp – one day! – he returned to solo bathroom journeys at home, acting as if he’d never done it any other way. He hasn’t looked back since.


Forging ahead


Our parental anxieties as the school year approaches are real and also justifiable. This is an absolutely crazy time to be a parent. That said, just as our kids are inherently resilient, we are, too. Talking about our concerns with friends, being proactive and involved with our children’s teachers, and trusting in the developmental process are all excellent ways to move forward through these uncertain times. We’ve done it for 17-ish months already. We can do it in the months ahead.

Except maybe not so well at three in the morning. 


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