An Echo Press Editorial: How to deal with back-to-school time during COVID-19

By the Echo Press Editorial Board

Tables are spaced further apart in a classroom in the Brandon-Evansville School District and the chairs are placed on the ends instead of side-by-side. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)

Back-to-school time can be stressful, exhilarating, scary, fun, busy or any combination of those emotions.

Throw in the dangers of COVID-19 and this year’s return to school is none like any other. The pandemic, education experts say, is changing the way students learn, socialize and experience the world.

Last week, the University of Minnesota offered some tips on how parents can help their children navigate the new school year during a time of change and uncertainty. The information comes from Abigail Gewirtz, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Family Social Science, the Institute of Child Development, and the Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health. Here are some helpful insights:

Q: How can parents navigate tough conversations about back to school and COVID-19 without causing additional stress or fear?

Prof. Gewirtz: First, manage your own stress. That’s easier said than done in these incredibly stressful times. But taking 10 seconds to breathe in deeply and breathe out even more deeply (and other stress-reduction strategies) will remind you that you have a choice about how to respond to whatever you are feeling when bad news hits. When you are feeling calmer, it’s going to be easier to focus on how your children are feeling. Conversations about difficult or scary things are a great opportunity for parents to coach their children’s emotions. Start by helping your child label and identify what s/he is feeling. You might do this by noticing their facial expressions, observing if they are crying that tears usually mean people are sad or anxious, etc. Then take time to validate their feelings.


For example, if your child tells you that her friend told her that her grandma is in the hospital with COVID-19, and she is worried about her, draw on your own experience as a child to validate that worry: “I remember when I was about your age and my grandma got really sick, and I was so worried about her.” Then listen to your child’s concerns. Often what we assume our kids are worried about is not what they actually are worried about. But only active listening will reveal that.

Q: Back to school will bring additional stressors this year. Are there ways parents can help their child manage their stress?

Prof. Gewirtz: Modify your expectations of not only your child, but also of what you can do! The burdens on parents these days are incredible – parents are expected to be workers, teachers, coaches, friends – and parents! Once you recognize and are able to moderate your own expectations, it’ll be much easier to help your child manage their stress. Kids are astute observers. Explicitly teaching your children to regulate their stress and their big emotions is also really important. Teach them belly breathing; the value of time outside, feeling the wind in their hair, watching the clouds in the sky. Have time set aside each day for conversations. And limit electronic devices!

Q: How can parents assist their children in overcoming the pandemic’s isolating effect?

Prof. Gewirtz: For the many children who won’t be going back to school in-person, mitigating the physical isolation from friends is important. Parents need to decide what social interaction their children can have with others. This will vary widely depending on many factors related to parents’ and kids’ risk for contracting the coronavirus, health vulnerabilities, occupational hazards, etc. Whatever your rules are, make those clear to your children, and then problem-solve within those parameters. For example, if you have a neighborhood or family bubble, do what you can to have kids outside, and in interactions with those others in the bubble as much as possible. If you are OK with your child doing a fall sport, that’s a great way to foster interaction. But even a family bike ride or a walk in the park will help kids feel less isolated. For older children, beware of too much time spent in their rooms with their phones; they are a double edged sword. On the one hand, many teens will say that social media helps them feel more connected, but it’s also really important to be in the world, physically, and not just online.

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