One thing that parents are coming to realize as the back-to-school season comes roaring in is that COVID-19 will be in the classroom even if it's not "in the classroom." What that means is that even schools that don't see cases will have COVID-19 at the forefront with everything that they do. The impact of COVID-19 on mental health in children is deepening as part of what some researchers are referring to as a "double wallop" stemming from both fears over the disease and disruptions to normalcy.
There has been a lot of talk about how things like strict protocols, rigid distancing rules, and uncertainty are impacting educators and parents as they try to create plans to keep kids safe, healthy and thriving amid a pandemic. However, it's also so important to see how kids are doing behind the masks as they're asked to take on new challenges that older siblings and parents never had to deal within the classroom. Even kids that are complying in what seems like a "well-adjusted" way may be dealing with some big internal storms. Parents need to be prepared for difficult conversations that go beyond the technical aspects of keeping up with changing classroom rules and norms. Parents must be ready to "check-in" to see how these changes are impacting mental health and attitudes toward learning.
There's a good chance that students who enter the classroom in masks this fall may notice that some of their classmates are without masks. Some kids will be exempt from wearing masks due to health issues that make it difficult or unsafe to spend long periods of time masked. This could create confusion and tension from a social perspective. First, parents should explain to their kids that they may see some of their classmates being given permission to roam without masks. It is so important to explain that these students are not being given preferential treatment. Next, parents of students who cannot wear masks for medical reasons should help their children to come up with a concise, friendly way to address questions from other students about why they aren't masked. Having a prepared explanation can help a child to avoid the need to feel cornered or defensive.
Many parents are handing masks over to their kids without providing explanations because they're afraid that the explanation is too scary. This doesn't need to be the case! Yes, trying to find the words to tell a child that they need to wear a mask to avoid the transmission of what is potentially a very dangerous disease is hard. However, we can bring the explanation from a place of fear to a place of empowerment with just a little twist in our perspective. Here are some helpful phrases to use when encouraging your child to put their mask on before leaving for school:
There's no need to hide the fact that there is danger involved. However, the point is to emphasize one's control over reducing and managing the danger by practicing the rules that are in place for safety in the classroom. You also don't want to throw your child into the situation unprepared by announcing that they'll need to keep a mask on for school just before it's time to drop them off or help them catch the bus.
The mask conversation should be an ongoing conversation leading up to the first day of school. It's also so important to help your child get some reps in by having practice days for wearing masks. You can even create some positive associations by practicing keeping a mask on while you sit down to watch your child's favorite movie or take a walk in your child's favorite park. Turn mask time into a fun, positive time to help your kid get over the hump of adjusting to something so unfamiliar. Always ask them what wearing the mask felt like for them. Did it bring up feelings of fear or anxiety?
What if the first day is a success? While that's great news, it doesn't mean the mask conversation should end. Continue to talk to your child about the way they feel about all of the protocols they're facing with each new day. Let them know that it's okay for them to tell you about the things they don't feel comfortable with. If you feel that you don't have the resources to know how to support your child's difficulty with adjusting to a COVID-19 learning landscape, it may be beneficial to seek out online therapy that provides a safe and encouraging place for your child to work out what they're feeling. For younger kids, arts-based therapeutic methods are often helpful for keeping kids engaged in the telehealth process.