September 3, 2020

Adjusting to a new school year in uncertain times

Kaiser Permanente experts share advice for helping children return to learning, whether returning to the classroom or remote learning at home.

Many families are experiencing uncertainty, anxiety, and fear about this school year. Annie Reed, DrPH, national director of Thriving Schools, and Don Mordecai, MD, national leader of mental health and wellness, are Kaiser Permanente experts and parents of school-aged children. We asked them to share their thoughts about how people can help their kids as learning resumes during this unique time.

The first half of 2020 has been very challenging amid the pandemic and social unrest. How has this affected children’s academic lives?

Annie Reed, DrPH

Reed: Just as with adults, months of social isolation combined with fear and anxiety related to COVID-19 and social unrest because of growing racial disparities and injustice have placed an enormous emotional strain on our kids. All these disruptions happening at the same time have had serious effects on the academic and home lives of many children. I have 2 young boys, ages 1 and 5, and my husband is a school administrator — so we’re really living this.

Academic inequities have gotten worse, exacerbated by disparities in technology and internet access. As a result, many students have fallen behind, with an estimated 20% of kids having “disappeared” from remote learning altogether. And many students who did have access had challenges engaging or staying on task in their virtual classes.

What impacts have there been on young people’s mental health?

Mordecai: Children and adolescents with direct exposure to the pandemic — for example, those who lose a loved one or whose family is struggling with the disease, food shortages, or other deprivations — may be most at risk for depression, anxiety, addiction, or other emotional issues. The good news is that young people are remarkably resilient, especially when they are given support and protection in uncertain situations.

However, we need to remain aware that right now they are affected by a lot of disruption. My wife and I have 2 sons. The older one is heading to college far from home where he will need to manage staying safe — wearing a mask and maintaining physical distance — on his own. And our younger son is facing more online schooling, which brings its own challenges.

Reed: There has also been a real increase in social needs as a result of the economic downturn, and many more families are now worried about food security and housing stability. And when it comes to emotional well-being, schools are the number one provider of mental health services to children and adolescents, so uncertain plans for this school year may leave another gap for our most vulnerable students. To help close that and other possible gaps, we have created the Planning for the Next Normal at School Playbook, a guide for education leaders to support the physical and emotional health of students, teachers, and school staff.

What can parents do to help their children prepare for the coming school year?

Reed: With the current surge in COVID-19 cases, many districts are beginning or have begun the school year remotely. As parents and family members supporting our kids, I suggest you try to do your best to understand your school district’s plans and share your hopes, fears, and concerns with trusted staff so you can work together to address them. If you know that your district’s plan will not work for your child, it’s important that they hear it. 

Also, set realistic expectations for yourself and your children — remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. Make plans for various contingencies, and identify family, friends, and other people who can support you and your family if you need help. And go easy on yourself and your kids. It’s okay not to be okay!

What can parents do to support their children’s mental health?

Don Mordecai, MD

Mordecai: Children will carry the effects of trauma with them as they return to learning, and they will be additionally affected by whatever new experiences make up the new normal in their schooling. It’s very important that both families and educators pay close attention to the emotions of children to help them cope during this unprecedented time of change and disruption.

It’s important to let your children know that they can share their feelings with you. The more you normalize a child's feelings, the more resilient your child will be when the feelings come. Children often take their emotional cues from important adults like parents and teachers, so it is important that adults manage their own emotions well, listen to children’s concerns, speak kindly, and reassure them. That said, if your children witness you experiencing hard feelings, that is okay — just be honest with them and assure them that together, you will get through this. Let them know that at times like this, feelings like anger or sadness are natural.

If you’re looking for additional support, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician so that you can create a care plan that meets your child’s individual needs.