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Helping students' mental health as they return to school amid COVID-19

Posted at 4:27 PM, Aug 06, 2020

School districts across the country are developing their plans to welcome back students this fall. From mandatory mask-wearing to lunch in the classrooms, students who return will likely be faced with a whole new learning environment.

"There will be a transition. The pandemic has been, in a sense, a chronic trauma almost for all of us and everyone has experienced it differently," says Dr. Christina Conolly, with the National Association of School Psychologists.

Dr. Conolly says parents should vary how they talk to their children about the pandemic and attending school, according to their age.

"For myself, I have a rising 6th grader, 11-year-old, so in talking to her, she understands what’s going on and I want to be honest and truthful but I may not share with her every single detail of what’s going on just because of the fear and anxiety that can come about," says Dr. Conolly.

Details to omit include death tolls and what's happening worldwide. Instead, focus on what's happening in your community. For teenagers, many will already have an idea of all the ups and downs of the COVID-19 pandemic, because of their access to cellphones and the internet. Dr. Conolly advises making sure the content they're watching is factual. Younger kids will need reassurance and transparency of what school will look like and what's expected of them.

"For little kids, it's okay to share with them what’s going on with the pandemic but talk to them in terms of we are here to make sure you stay safe. The school and the staff in your school are making sure you stay safe," says Dr. Conolly.

"I wanted to see how Trent, my youngest, was when I went out. When I saw how he looked behind the mask and how he kind of retreated I thought, 'OK, I need to be more sensitive with him.' He doesn’t need all the details, he needs the facts, what we do when we go out now, what you’re going to expect when you see," says Beth Middleton, a former elementary school teacher and mom of four.

Middleton is hoping her local school district provides parents with specific details of what children can expect when they head back to class.

"If we don’t prepare them for what the classrooms are going to look like and the counties don't prepare us as parents for what it's going to specifically look like when they enter at all different levels, then we’re not going to know. Then we’re not going to prepare them well enough," says Middleton.

Plus, there are some families who have been directly affected by COVID-19. Schools will be focusing on the health, safety and mental health for those students and staff, too. Then, there's the wearing of masks by teachers and some kids who may or may not be wearing them.

"You might have to explain, 'Well, maybe some kids aren’t wearing masks because they have a health condition and they can’t wear a mask. Or maybe because of other things that are going on.' So just try to make sure you’re educating your kids about best practices and you’re talking to them about if someone isn’t maybe why that’s occurring to help them understand, to try and eliminate anxiety that might exist," says Dr. Conolly.

The key is to remain calm. Kids will react to the pandemic the same way you do. Give them the safety tips and reassurance they need to start off school in the healthiest way possible.