Early last March, the storm clouds of COVID-19 began to gather. An uneasiness began to stir across the country as we became aware of a virus that could potentially have significant medical consequences for anyone who was infected. Early on, it seemed like a remote possibility that this illness would have much impact in Central Illinois. How quickly everything changed.
On March 13, it was abruptly announced that schools in Illinois would close. The news of closure came at the end of a school day on a Friday. As one of my sixth-graders heard of the closure, tears began streaming down her face. I asked her what the tears were about. Her response was that she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to learn things without her teachers. For her, and many, normal ceased to exist.
We all lived through a period of shelter-in-place, distance learning, masks in grocery stores, theme park closures, and work from home. For many American parents and school children, the previous four months have been filled with moments of uncertainty, anxiety, frustration, confusion, sadness, isolation, and fear. For some, grief has been a dominant emotion. Now, hopefully, we have emerged from the depths of the threat to our safety and look forward excitedly to the reopening of schools in August.
While there will definitely be a different look to aspects of a typical school day in the Catholic schools in our diocese, our children will recognize right away as they pull into the parking lot on that first day — they are back where they belong! There will be excitement at seeing their friends, meeting some new friends, and seeing their teachers. There could also be some anxiety because of the changes they encounter. Parents and teachers can ease the transition by observing a few simple guidelines.
1. Children are emotional sponges. If they observe anxiety and panic, they will likely manifest those feelings. If, on the other hand, they observe a steady, calm approach to vexing situations, they have a better chance to make the necessary adjustments to stressful, unfamiliar events. Reassurance and encouragement should be included in every parents’ toolbox.
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2. Children and adults do better with transitions if they know what to expect. Uncertainty can lead to confus sion, anxiety, and fear. Parents can help their children prepare for school by providing a picture of what their children are likely to encounter. Although things may change before mid-August, it looks like physical distancing, masks for at least part of the day, and increased sanitization measures are a certainty. Lunch may look different, before and after school entry and exit procedures could be different. Handshakes and physical hugs will give way to “air hugs.”
A calm, matter-of-fact discussion with children about what to expect should allay their fears and concerns. Children do not need to know every detail, just the major highlights. In a week or two of being back in school, a routine will be established.
3. The last five months have been as tumultuous a time in our nation’s history as any time in my lifetime. The pandemic combined with racial awareness issues and con- comitant civil unrest, as well as a polarized political scene, have led chil- dren young and older to feel confused and sometimes frightened and angry. Parents have an opportunity and a responsibility to have meaningful conversations with their children.
The basis for effective discussions with children is to listen to what they say and to discover how they feel. In today’s world of social media, children are exposed to wide ranging news sources. Some of these sources may be questionable and lead children down paths which could be problematic or harmful.
It is important for parents to ask the right questions, to probe the feelings and to provide their children with facts and reassurance that they are safe. The conversations should be age-appropriate of course, but most people would be surprised by what a 7-year-old second-grader is exposed to and picks up on. Discussions should allow children to be heard and feelings validated as well as give parents the opportunity to teach and clarify whether the topic is coronavirus or racism.
4. Parents are entitled to the best possible educational opportunities for their children. When something is lacking or amiss, parents should contact the appropriate person at the school. An issue cannot be dealt with if it remains unknown.With all the changes coming up this school year, it is more critical than ever that students with special medical, educational, or social-emotional needs to be recognized and provide for. Teachers and administrators will be looking out for these students, but parents should be assertive in letting the school know. Do not be hesitant to seek advice and professional help if needed.
Or sixth-grade student with tears on her cheeks will soon be returning to school as a seventh-grader. I can’t wait until she and her classmates are filling our hallways with chatter and laughter. We will pray upon her return as a Catholic community for the
health and safety of our students, families, and staff, and for unification and peace throughout our country.
Dr. William Moredock is principal at Little Flower Catholic School in Springfield and is a clinical psychologist.