What Back-To-School (ish) Means

BY JEFFREY L. REYNOLDS
specialsections@antonmediagroup.com

The first day of school is always stressful for kids, parents and school personnel, but starting the 180-day journey this year was quite different than anything we’ve experienced before.

Returning to reconfigured plexiglassed classrooms left kids disoriented and everyone else wondering whether kindergarteners and high school students would be able to adhere to physical distancing guidelines and wear masks for six hours. And what happens if an infected teacher, staff member or student unwittingly
spreads the virus to others, who in turn bring it home to their families? These are the questions prompted by a global health pandemic that has killed almost 200,000 Americans.

Dr. Jeff Reynolds.
(Photo courtesy of Family Children’s Association (FCA))

Returning to the kitchen table for remote learning comes with different questions. Parents rightly fear that their children will fall behind socially, emotionally and academically. They worry about being unable to give their children enough attention as they juggle company conference calls or alternatively lose income from not being able to work.

A hybrid model that splits classroom time and online learning — the
approach taken by most school districts — means navigating the best and worst of both worlds as everyone tries to balance health, safety, education and well-being.

As we head into the seventh month of the pandemic, all of this has taken a toll on families, especially moms. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 35 percent of mothers surveyed said back-to-school stress and worry has had a major impact on their mental health. When asked about specific signs of stress, 69 percent of mothers said they have experienced difficulty sleeping, poor appetite or overeating, frequent headaches and stomachaches, difficulty controlling their tempers and/or increased alcohol or drug use. Fifty-one percent of fathers experienced the same.

Another study from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education found
that 61 percent of parents of children in Massachusetts agreed or strongly agreed that they felt “nervous, anxious, or on edge” because of the pandemic. Low-income parents and those who have suddenly lost their jobs are suffering disproportionately as they worry about having access to computers for their kids. Without
daily free or reduced price school lunches, parents are visiting food
pantries and skipping meals in order to feed their kids.

Six months in, we can’t yet fully comprehend the far-reaching, long-lasting economic, psychological, social and educational implications of this century’s biggest natural disaster. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts the fall and winter
months will be “one of the most difficult times we’ve experienced in
American public health.”

It’s going to get worse before it gets better, but as our kids and families settle into the “new normal,” there are ways to minimize COVID’s impact on our everyday routines, our kids’ development and family well-being.

Health and safety come first, so encourage kids to wear masks,
practice social distancing and wash their hands frequently. Model
those behaviors and explain why it’s important for their health and
to protect others. Taking personal responsibility, making healthy
choices and navigating peer pressure are critical components of
social and emotional learning.

Disrupted school schedules mean that many young people don’t have ready access to school counselors and social workers that serve as confidential sounding boards and can quickly detect changes in attitudes, demeanor and grades. Parents and other family members can help fill that void by delving deeper and following up on the opening “how was your day?” queries with more specific questions such as, “What’s one thing you would change about today?” “How was today different than yesterday?” “What excited you the most about today?”

Most parents by now have heard the advice: Maintain household
routines and school schedules, work as a team, communicate frequently with teachers and school personnel, and understand the
inherent limitations of trying to do all of this during a global pandemic.

If you are a parent who would do absolutely anything for your kids,
please be sure to take care of yourself as well. Stay healthy—physically and emotionally—by making sure you are getting enough sleep, eating properly, exercising regularly and limiting your alcohol consumption. Schedule some downtime for yourself in the morning or in the evening, even if it’s only 10 or 15 minutes to watch a yoga video, read a book or walk around the block.

Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds is the President/CEO of Family and Children’s Association (FCA), one of Nassau’s oldest and largest nonprofit health and human service organizations.

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