Cross Country Checkup

How to talk about back-to-school plans with your kids during a pandemic

With just weeks until the start of the school year, many parents are having to decide whether their children will return to school. Two experts offer some tips on talking to your children about what going back to school could look like this year.

'If you've made the decision that your children are going back to school, be positive about it': psychologist

The school year will soon begin for students across the country, but parents are facing a difficult decision about whether or not it's safe for them to return to classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Shutterstock)

As September approaches, soon-to-be Grade 9 student Jade Van Klei is still unsure about her back-to-school plans.

With the Carleton Place, Ont., student's grandparents living in her home, she and her family have taken precautions to protect them from contracting COVID-19 — and now she's debating whether to return to the classroom.

"I would worry that someone would bring it into school and I might bring it home to my grandparents," she told Cross Country Checkup.

While research suggests that the risk of transmitting COVID-19 is lower among children under 10, experts have argued there's insufficient data to know for sure.

Parents and students alike are having to make challenging decisions about whether or not it's safe to return to school this fall. In many provinces, including those reopening classrooms, students may opt for online learning programs.

Tracy Mills, left, and her daughter Jade Van Klei are having regular conversations about whether it's safe for the 14-year-old to return to her school's classroom in September. (Submitted by Tracy Mills)

But for some families with concerns about bringing the coronavirus home, or those that don't have capacity for home schooling, the choice between virtual and in-person schooling isn't immediately clear.

"I think it's incredibly important to be looking at the anxiety and stress that the kids are under," says Tracy Mills, Van Klei's mother. "We probably have conversations about it every day, and we talk about the pros and the cons, and the implications for our family."

"My fear is that because there's so many unknowns ... Jade goes back and then there's an outbreak, and then the school is shut down — then I think it wasn't even worth the risk of sending her back."

Age-appropriate conversations

Victoria-based clinical child psychologist Dr. Jillian Roberts said there are a few things parents can keep in mind when discussing back-to-school options — or decisions — with their children.

She suggests that parents should first consider their own feelings and worries about the new school year.

"What parents have to understand is that children are going to look to you to gauge how worried or confident they should be about a particular situation," she said.

Dr. Jillian Roberts Roberts, a clinical child psychologist in Victoria, says parents should approach back-to-school conversations differently, depending on their child's age. (Joshua Lawrence)

How one then approaches the conversation might depend on the child's age, she said. While those over 13 may be able to engage in a conversation about the complexity of the situation and how a decision for or against homeschooling is made, younger students may not.

In those cases, parents "need to make up their own decision and be firm and confident with whatever decision they're making," Roberts said. 

"If you've made the decision that your children are going back to school, be positive about it, be excited about it, frame it in the best possible way for your child and be very specific about what the details are."

Honesty is the best policy, says psychiatrist

Dr. Rachel Mitchell, a youth psychiatrist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital, said conversations like these can be handled in the same way parents would discuss other safety precautions, like seatbelts or helmets.

"There are certain things that are now part of day-to-day life that we have to do, that we didn't have to do before, but were always a good idea," she suggests as a possible starting point. 

"Those things are wearing masks, washing our hands and following whatever rules the teachers tell us and our parents tell us about how close we can get to certain people."

For younger students who may not be involved in the decision about whether or not they'll be in the classroom this September, Mitchell said it's a good idea for parents to engage them in smaller decisions, like how they participate in online learning or where to place their desk.

Dr. Rachel Mitchell, a youth psychiatrist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital, says parents should be truthful about the realities of COVID-19 with their children. (Submitted by Rachel Mitchell)

She also encourages parents to be honest with their kids when discussing back-to-school plans. 

"They can tell when you're not being truthful," she said.

"Worrying about the uncertainty, and knowing that they're not being told [the truth], is actually more destabilizing, potentially, than knowing the truth and being given the tools and support to deal with it."

Online learning can be positive, student says

With just weeks until the new school year begins, Van Klei is weighing her options.

"We are slightly leaning towards doing online learning, mainly because of my grandparents," the student said. "And we've been having discussions about, if I did go back, what would our protocol be like?"

WATCH | How effective are masks in keeping schools safe from COVID-19?

Doctors answer questions about schools reopening during the pandemic including how effective masks are in keeping schools safe from the spread of COVID-19. 6:34

In June, Van Klei's school board offered students the opportunity to share their thoughts on this coming September in a survey. She said she appreciated the opportunity to provide her input.

While she misses the structure and social connections that classroom learning offers, she said she believes online learning can still offer a positive experience.

"I'm quite an academic student. I take school pretty seriously, and I am OK with the online learning," she said. "I don't find it that difficult."


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Mrinali Anchan and Kirthana Sasitharan.

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