As schools prepare to reopen in September, the uncertainty of what to expect raises a myriad of questions and feelings for parents and students alike.

  • What will the procedures be like in schools?
  • Will children be asked to wear masks and social distance?
  • Will full classroom learning continue, or will some teaching take place at home?
  • How will children cope with new measures implemented?
  • What if a child or a teacher gets sick?
  • Will there be more school closures?

These are just a few of the questions that every parent is asking right now. One thing everyone can agree on is that the upcoming school year is one underpinned by uncertainty, which causes a level of concern and anxiety for both students and parents.

Should You Be Concerned About the Risks of Returning to School?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have collated and summarized the evidence around the risk of schools returning. Although a concern for all parents, the clinical evidence indicates that children are much less likely to suffer severe symptoms if they become infected with COVID-19. The disease itself poses very little risk to the young, with those under 18 years old accounting for less than 7% of COVID-19 cases and less than 0.1% of COVID-19-related deaths. Studies also show that transmission rates among children in schools are likely to be low, with some countries seeing no transmission from children to their parents. However, when balancing the risk associated with opening schools, it is important to recognize the negative impact of keeping schools closed. The detrimental effect of school closures on the academic achievement, social wellbeing, emotional wellbeing, and behavioral health of children is well-researched and documented. School closures and long breaks from in-person teaching are harmful, leading to…

  • Severe learning loss
  • Poor development of social and emotional skills
  • Negative effects on the health and safety of children living in at-risk situations.

It is important to acknowledge that the government and authorities will have taken this research into consideration when planning to re-open schools and are taking measures to ensure the safety of staff and students.

However, what is vital to remember is that nobody understands your family situation better than you. You may have vulnerable relatives to shield or have embraced home-schooling, finding it suits your child better. Not all students find school a positive experience and for some, being at home is a welcome respite from the social and educational pressures. Therefore, although returning to school may be suitable for one family, it is not necessarily suitable for the next. What is important is that children are given the emotional support they require. Elementary school teacher Karen Lysne discusses the importance of this: Unless a child is in a secure place emotionally, meaningful learning just will not happen. By supporting your child emotionally, in whatever learning environment suits your family, you enable them to be receptive to learning. Children have experienced a huge amount of loss from school closures, and not just the obvious loss of learning. Understanding this is key to moving forward in the next school year.

Understanding Loss and How to Help Your Child Through It

An emotion that all children have experienced as a result of lockdown is loss. Loss of learning, loss of structure, loss of routine, loss of social interaction, and loss of opportunity. Loss can trigger feelings of grief, anxiety, and depression affecting every child differently. For some children, the loss of simple routine has a huge impact on their concentration levels. Younger children thrive on routine and can become frustrated and distracted when this is altered or removed.

Older children have experienced a loss of freedom; being constrained to the house with their parents all day and unable to see their friends. Some feel cheated, having examinations changed or put on hold, and proms cancelled. Both of these watershed moments symbolic of an end to their schooling. Not to mention the loss of social interaction and being able to learn from and confide in their peers. Dr. Tom DeGeorge, Licensed Counselor at Thriveworks Philadelphia and Assistant Professor in the Graduate Counseling Department at Rosemont College, explains the pressures teenagers are under: For teenagers the challenges are different from younger age groups due to being that they are that much closer to the final years of the school experience, coupled with the uncertainty of what their lives will look like moving forward. Plans for college, jobs and other experiences are being reset in ways that they cannot prepare for. They are caught in the middle of ending one relationship while trying to understand what the future relationship will be like and their role in that place.”

Feelings of grief and uncertainty are natural after experiencing loss. Children may display these anxieties in a variety of ways such as:

  • Showing feelings of rebellion
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Withdrawal
  • Worry

These feelings are not uncommon. By recognizing them, you can work through them and find ways to support your child and take a positive path forward. Elementary educator Karen Lysne advises how to approach these emotions: There are many children’s books that address these feelings and help kids learn to talk through them, as well as give the parents a platform to begin discussions that may be difficult. I would encourage parents to reach out to teachers and librarians to get some titles of books to read.” By having an understanding of what your child has experienced, and opening discussions with them, it will help you to prepare your child for the upcoming school year.

“When talking to teenagers, try to focus on the process of how you talk with your teenager rather than the content,” Dr. Tom DeGeorge advises. It is important that they feel able to be heard without judgement. Listen to the underlying message that they might be sharing, but not voicing in so many words. You may not have all the answers, and that is okay. Parents do not need to have the answers. Allowing for the conversation to be had, and reassuring your teenager that they can come to you with their concerns, it is much more valuable than solving the problem.

What Might Learning Look Like Going Forward?

As schools prepare to re-open, one thing is clear: Each school, town, and state will have a different approach to education. With infection numbers varying state to state, and different areas facing different educational needs and challenges, each school district is building its own re-opening plan. Teachers advise parents to be prepared for several scenarios such as smaller class groups, staggered break times, different entrances and exits, social distancing measures, possible mask-wearing, less large group settings like assemblies, changes in sports, changes in testing conditions, a mix of home-schooling/blended online learning, and more outdoor learning.

The CDC has set out recommendations to establish healthy environments and maintain healthy operations, focusing on good hygiene, and practicing preventative behaviors. The advice is to stay informed as to what is going on in your local school and community with regards to education. You can keep up to date with your school’s re-opening plan by reading their website, following their social media pages, ensuring you are on their email list, and directly speaking to the teachers. You can start to ready your children for the new school year now, and do not need to wait until the first day of term.

Tips on how to prepare for the new school year:

  1. Children may be encouraged to socially distance and play apart. To minimize separation anxiety, and help your child to be comfortable playing alone, try to encourage your child to play independently.
  2. Ask a teacher or librarian about books to help you encourage your child to discuss their emotions.
  3. If lunch regulations have changed and your child’s lunch will be a bit different, then talk to them about it. Show them their lunch kit and ask them the types of things they like to eat in their lunch. Try to make lunch fun, and make your child comfortable with any changes from what they are used to.
  4. Keep a positive attitude and lead positive conversations about returning to school. Your child may be worrying about it, but not voicing it. Lead the way by regularly starting going back to school discussions. Remind children of the positive aspects of going back to school; like seeing their friends.
  5. Establish back to school routines, including sleeping schedules and morning routines a few days before returning to school. By ensuring a healthy sleep routine and start to the day, your child will be more mentally prepared to cope with the changes at school.
  6. Practice good hand hygiene at home. Teach your child how to wash their hands effectively for 20 seconds. A great way to ensure you are washing them for long enough is to sing the ABC song (or find a more appropriate song for older children, there are a lot of good examples out there). Teach children how to cough/sneeze into their elbow.
  7. If your child will be required to wear a mask, help them to get comfortable with it at home first. Try to find a design they like, and that can be worn comfortably for long periods of time. Teach them how to put it on/off. By getting used to it at home, they won’t be worried about how to use it and wear it at school.
  8. Keep the lines of communication open with your school and teacher.
  9. There will likely be days that children have to stay at home and adopt distance learning. On these days, create a schedule and stick to it. If you are unsure of the best routine for a home-school day, speak to your child’s teacher for advice.
  10. Reach out to other families from your school. If long periods of distance learning occur, work together to set up video calls between children.
  11. Be prepared. Check out the school’s website or speak to your child’s teacher about the supplies they will need. Find out new regulations about what children can/cannot take with regards to lunch. Find out if any items are no longer allowed due to new precautions. Talk to your child about these changes, what they need, and what to expect so that there are no surprises.
  12. Older children need to have a place where they can share their feelings honestly. Try to start a discussion while you are both engaged in another activity. A shared venture automatically leads to a shared discussion. Being active while talking helps to keep the conversation moving in a positive manner.
  13. Trust your instincts. Regardless of age, you are the expert on your child. If you see a change in your child or are worried about them, then check in and try to address the differences you are seeing. It is not easy asking hard questions but the worst thing you can do is do nothing.

Remember, it’s early; things will keep changing.

Although schools are trying to be open regarding what the new school year will look like, it will inevitably keep changing. Things like the Winter flu season and further periods of lockdown may change the way schools operate over coming months. Be open with your child about this. Encourage them to go with the flow as much as possible so that they can overcome adversity. If you know a change is coming, prepare your child so that it isn’t a shock for them. Not everything will go smoothly, not everything will be perfect, and being aware of that will put you in good stead going forwards. 

It’s Not All About the Children—Parent Wellbeing Is Important, Too!

The discussion of returning to school puts an enormous amount of stress onto parents. Having to make the right decision for your family while also being concerned about the health of your child can cause a lot of worrying feelings. In addition, having to consider back-up childcare plans, the possibility of some home-schooling, how to meet your child’s academic needs, and how to continue to work and support your family are very challenging problems to face. In such a strained situation, you may be feeling afraid to voice your choices and feelings, which can lead to feeling alone. Be confident that you are not the only one feeling this way, it is completely normal. Society has not undergone such rapid change since the end of World War 2!

Heidi Faust, LCSW, Licensed Therapist at Thriveworks, gives her advice on how parents can cope with the stress of the impending school year: “Whenever possible, parents should seek support from other parents dealing with similar issues. Most importantly, parents should do their best to set aside time for themselves to focus on healthy activities of daily living such as exercising, going for walks, meditation, healthy eating and sleeping habits, and scheduling some alone time with their significant other, to name a few. Parents should also know that they are not alone and can always schedule an appointment to begin a relationship with a licensed counselor, for professional support.” 

Remember to look after yourself, and that you are not alone. By keeping yourself in good mental and physical health, you will feel more prepared to support your child through their challenges. 


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Helen Massy is a medical and health content writer specializing in evidence-based medical articles, health-focused blogs, and wellbeing-based website content. She has an extensive background as a health care professional and senior leader in the UK National Health Service (NHS), along with being a mother to three young children and a well-travelled military spouse.