Cross Country Checkup

Parents' anxiety over back-to-school plans could hit students hard, says psychologist

Professor Kristina Lewellyn says that some young people may have absorbed their parents’ or caregivers’ professional, personal or financial anxiety during the pandemic — and that could mean more anxious kids heading back to school in the fall.

Kids susceptible to their parents' pandemic-related anxiety, says social development professor

Students will have to adapt to many new precautions when they return to school this fall. (Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images)

Laura Mazzino is eager for her seven-year-old son to get back into the classroom, despite having concerns about how the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could affect students.

Mazzino's son, Connor, attends a bilingual Spanish-English school in Calgary, but was pulled out of class a week before the pandemic forced students and parents in Canada to adopt virtual learning. His mother was paying close attention to the situation overseas.

"I would love for the virus to disappear tomorrow and he goes to school. I can't wait for him to go back to school," the Calgary mother told Cross Country Checkup.

"The reason we don't want to home-school our child, even though we could, is because we really value the benefit that the school provides to him for his social and cultural growth."

Laura Mazzino, right, pictured with her husband Brent Villeneuve and son Connor, 7. Mazzino hopes Connor can return to school and benefit from socializing with his peers. (Paulina Ramis/Submitted by Laura Mazzino)

Alberta's provincial government announced all students would make a "near-normal" return to school in the fall, despite a spike in COVID-19 cases last week.

Under guidelines in that province, the government offered specific health and safety recommendations for schools that include physical distancing of students, directional markers in hallways and staggered breaks. Masks, however, will not be mandatory.

In Nova Scotia, schools will reopen for all students in September, the government announced on Wednesday. Back-to-school plans for students in British Columbia and Ontario are expected to be announced in the coming days.

For many working parents, the switch to home-schooling has disrupted work schedules, and the loss of social connection that schools provide has also been detrimental to students' mental health, experts say.

That's why in addition to safety precautions, schools need to develop plans for supporting students' emotional well being, according to Tina Montreuil, an assistant professor of school/applied child psychology at McGill University.

"If we've failed to not consider those aspects, and give children the space to talk about those aspects — to take care of their emotional needs — I think we are most likely going to exacerbate and aggravate what's already been done in terms of potential damage."

Adult anxiety trickles down

It's not only isolation affecting children. Others may have absorbed their parents' or caregivers' professional, personal or financial anxiety over the pandemic.

That anxiety, felt by both parents and teachers concerned about young Canadians' returning to the classroom, could have negative trickle down effects on children, said Kristina Lewellyn, an associate professor of social development studies at University of Waterloo. 

"If you have the adults all around young people anxious about what this might look like, and not actually part of the plan and the implementation … then you are going to have young people who are also anxious," she said.

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Danica Marshall is also looking forward to her two sons, 10 and 14, returning to school because "they need the social interaction." 

But she worries that there aren't adequate safeguards to protect them, especially when it comes to supplying personal protective equipment. She would like to see schools take on a modified schedule.

"I was kind of hoping, at first, they'd do the modified two days on, two days off kind of thing, or part-time school, just to start and see how it went," she told Checkup

"I'm very torn, very torn, but I'm still going to send them for now and just work around it. If numbers keep going up, then maybe I'll just pull them out every couple of days."

Danica Marshall, pictured with her sons, 14-year-old Duncan, left, and 10-year-old Connor, is happy that her sons will return to their schools in Calgary this fall, but she has concerns about how safe it will be. (Submitted by Danica Marshall)

For Mazzino, who is a science communicator and works in schools, the anxiety over COVID-19 is personal. Both her mother and sister, who live in Madrid, faced "severe" cases of the illness earlier this year.

"I know that these are unprecedented times, but I think that we have to consider all the concerns that all people have in terms of going back to school," she said, adding that she didn't expect children would be returning to classrooms until a vaccine became available.

Making modifications to the weekly schedule — for example, one half of the class in school during the morning, the other half in the afternoon — and implementing mandatory mask rules would offer some peace of mind, Mazzino said. "Those are the things that will tip over the scale for me."

While she said she's encouraged by the safety precautions prescribed by the Alberta government, she believes some — distancing in particular — will be a challenge.

"At the few schools I have been in the Calgary area, some of them can accommodate six feet apart, [but] some of them are very crowded," she said. "So I'm concerned that an outbreak will occur in the school."

Medical experts at SickKids Hospital in Toronto published a report in June recommending that students return to school given evidence that suggests COVID-19 cases and transmission are less severe among young people.

Children are resilient, says expert

Marshall said her youngest son, also named Connor, understands that school won't be the same as before the pandemic — but that's proven difficult for the 10-year-old.

"He's a little sad that school won't be the same, because he does have some close friends and he wants to see them," she said.

Psychologist Tina Montreuil encourages parents to have conversations with their children about how the upcoming school year will be different for them, and what worries they have. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Psychologist Montreuil said there are a few things that schools and parents could do to help students readjust to the classroom in the fall.

"It could be that they go and grab a specific toy or a doll, for example, that will bring them reassurance," she said of younger students.

Elementary students might be assigned to write a story about their experience during the pandemic, or how they're feeling about being back in school, to help put their emotions into perspective, she said.

Ahead of September, Montreuil encourages parents to avoid being "overly worried" and have conversations with kids about what back to school might look like — that teachers may be wearing masks and that they can't hug their friends.

"First deal with your own uncertainties, insecurities and concerns," she said.

"Once that's done, then you can do these kinds of things with your children to make them feel more equipped."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Kirthana Sasitharan and Steve Howard.

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