While schools in some areas of the country won't reopen until September, kids in parts of the U.S. are starting to head back to school after a year-plus of disrupted pandemic learning. Students in California went back to school last week for in-person learning after many experienced remote or hybrid learning models for most of last year, while some Mississippi classrooms have been open since the last week of July.
Parents are flooding social media with back-to-school photos, and many shared emotional messages as well.
Why does this school year feel different than years past? "It feels like a little bit of a return to normalcy after a year-plus of anything but," Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. "A lot of schools were not accommodating a full five-day-a-week schedule last year. It just feels right, like what our kids are supposed to be doing."
Feeling emotional about kids going back to school is a "typical response, but it's amplified this year because of everything that's been going on for the past year and a half," Jason Lewis, a psychologist and section director of Mood, Anxiety and Trauma Disorders in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, tells Yahoo Life. "It's been a long time now since there were typical school days," he adds.
Going back to school can be seen by some parents as a "victory lap" after everything they've been through with pandemic learning, John Mayer, a clinical psychologist, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life and creator of the Anxiety's a B!tch podcast, tells Yahoo Life. "It is the walk-off home run, the winning of the race, the game-winning touchdown or the last note in a perfect performance," he says.
But kids are also heading back to school at a time where the pandemic is still happening — and even surging in many areas of the country. On Friday, for example, there were 140,144 new cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By comparison, there were just 52,463 new cases diagnosed on Aug. 13 last year, per CDC data.
"There's a lot of uncertainty," Lewis says.
It's not just parents that can feel emotional about returning to the classroom this year — kids can, too. "They can be overwhelmed and excited," Fisher says. "Older kids are going to be very much at peace because they're used to being in a full classroom, but younger kids may have a period of adjustment." Some kids may also have some anxiety about returning to a classroom "because the pandemic has taught them that they need to be careful," Fisher says.
Despite potential fears, infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that families should feel comfortable sending children back to school if proper safety measures are in place. "With vaccination of children above the age of 12 and of adults, schooling in the pandemic era is easier than it was last year," he says. "However, even last year it was shown to be able to be conducted safely."
"For unvaccinated children, it may be necessary to mask when they are in an area where there are high levels of spread and low levels of vaccination, but for others who are vaccinated, the risk is not significant," he explains.
Mayer recommends that families approach back to school with a positive mindset. "Be reassuring, excited, supportive, flexible and cautious," he says. "Be ready to pivot if the school has to return to a hybrid model."
Lewis also suggests having an open conversation with your children about what the school year may look like. "Starting to have conversations about expectations for the school year now is worthwhile," he says. At the same time, Lewis recommends encouraging children to be open about their emotions around going back to school. "Give them space and the opportunity to express those thoughts and feelings," he says.
If your child seems anxious about going back to school, Fisher recommends talking to them about things that are being done to keep them healthy and safe, as well as talking up the positives, like being able to see friends in school again. "Have a discussion about how you feel that this is the best and safest way for them to go back to school," she says. And, if you're not entirely sure how to navigate this one, Fisher points out that your child's pediatrician may be able to offer some personalized advice.
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