Psychology of Returning Our Children to School During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Posted by: Dr. Justin D'Arienzo, Psy.D., ABPP


I was asked by a local school to provide guidance to assist parents in making a decision regarding sending their children back to school this fall during the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 and this is my transcript from the video I provided. I hope this helps you with your decision!

What is the Psychology of Returning Our Children to School During the COVID-19 Pandemic? What is the Best Decision for My Child and Our Family?

Hi, my name is Dr. Justin D’Arienzo. I am a board-certified clinical psychologist here in Jacksonville and, just as all of you, I have personally and professionally been impacted by COVID-19, just as my wife, Erica, and our four children have all been impacted in similar as well as different ways. We have one child in boarding school in New York and three other children in school in Florida, and all children have been home since March. It’s been the spring break that never ended. Today, I will be talking about coping with the prospect of your children returning to school and how we can best be a positive force in partnering with our schools, regardless of the learning format we are choosing for our children this coming fall.

The thought of children returning to school this fall has been quite daunting for most people.

I am not here to review the best available evidence indicating that COVID-19 poses relatively low risks to school aged children, as that is not in my wheelhouse given that I am not a physician. However, as a psychologist, I am going to talk a bit about the impact of school closures on our kids and how that relates to the recent recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the CDC, that schools should be safely reopened for in-person session. These recommendations have comforted some but perplexed others. We know that there are many benefits for children to return to school in an in-person format, but this may not be right for every family. We do know that extended school closure is generally not good for children. Consider what we know about the “summer slide”, where most kids lose 20 to 50 percent of their learning gains due to summer breaks, and then factor in the psychological impact that comes with being home for an even more extended period of time rather than being in school.

Science indicates that children learn best in physical classrooms and that physical school plays a critical role in the development of the whole child. High quality learning is inherently relational and social, and not individual and teacher centered like in online learning. When children are not at school in-person they miss out on essentially rich academic and social-emotional learning, formative relationships with peers and other adults, opportunities for play and exercise, and many other developmental opportunities that cannot be quantified or replicated virtually. Our schools also offer healthy meals, mental health, tutoring, and extra individualized learning services, and play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequality.

In our practice, I’ve heard countless arguments and judgments for and against opening up schools over the last couple of weeks. If you are nervous, then you are not alone. Parents in both camps have varied levels of anxiety about this, and some children are anxious too. While the majority of parents intend to send their children back to school, there remains a minority that are choosing to keep their children home. This is certainly a tough call to make, and we all have our reasons for our positions. Maybe we have lost someone to COVID-19 or have a family member that is especially vulnerable. Maybe we need to return to work. Maybe our child is showing symptoms of depression from not seeing their friends in months. Maybe we are dealing with a child with a behavior problem who needs the structure of being in a physical classroom. Maybe the combination of stressors is fueling marital problems at home. Maybe we are projecting our fears onto our child and they are more scared about returning to school than they need be.

The bottom line is that we should not judge anyone’s position, as there is no one size that fits all, and we often never really know what our neighbors, friends, and relatives may be facing privately. We must be respectful of their choice and not judge. but what we all can do, regardless of our position, is not pass along our worry to our children.

We, the adults, have to inspire resiliency or mental toughness by maintaining control of our own daily lives, our emotions, our tone, and what we say in front of our children.

  1. Model healthy proportional and rational reactions. Remember, little eyes are watching. Your children take your lead on how to feel, think, and respond. Your job is to teach them to be calm and act responsibly rather than obsessing about your fears.
  2. Make practicing good hygiene and self-care a community team effort. In essence, we are now partnering with the schools.
  3. Instill confidence and control. Kids make lots of assumptions, just as we do when we don’t have the whole story. Control the narrative with the truth. Ask them what they think is happening and share with them the facts as well as what they can do to improve the situation themselves.
  4. Acknowledge their feelings and acknowledge your own. Don’t fight your feelings or deny theirs. Process your child’s worries with them. Process your feelings with a friend or family member, and not with your child.

Fortunately, our schools are adapting with new in-school safety procedures and are also offering hybrid and virtual learning formats. Just as our schools calmly and confidently adapt, we must calmly and confidently adapt to this new normal. It is vital that we project confidence and calmness whether our child is returning to school or they are being home-schooled, but if they are being home-schooled, we must ensure they are exercising, maintaining a healthy diet, and we are supplementing school social activities with virtual ones to make up for their lost interactions which are so vital to the growth of our children.

COVID-19 is going to be with us for a while so we must continue to learn to adapt to it and the next phase is safely returning our children to school, to the trained experts who are fully equipped and ready to feed their minds, bodies, and spirits, and keep them safe. For some of you, the best decision for you and your family will be virtual learning for your child. For the rest of you, know that your schools have quickly become seasoned in safety protocols and have many options to meet the needs of its students.

Best wishes and stay safe, this too shall pass, and we and our children will be better and stronger.