Guest columnists Kate Atkinson and Janet Nelson: Should my child go to school?

  • Back-to-school supplies await shoppers at a store on July 11 in Marlborough. The pandemic has dragged into the new school year and wreaked havoc on reopening plans. That has extended to the back-to-school shopping season, the second most important period for retailers behind the holidays.  AP PHOTO/BILL SIKES 

Published: 8/4/2020 2:02:28 PM

It is time to get ready for school! It has been nearly five months since the COVID-19 virus closed our schools, and the fall is fast approaching. No doubt, parents have been thinking about this issue throughout the summer. Some of the questions that need to be addressed are:

■Does my child have health issues which would complicate their exposure?

■Has my child been very stressed about not being in school? Have they shown signs of anxiety/depression and behavioral changes? Has there been increased tension within the family due to continued close proximity?

■Have I been able to review the school plans for safety and effective learning?

■How can I transport my child, since school buses may present other proximity challenges?

■How much coronavirus infection is in my community? If the rate of infection changes, can I adjust my plans quickly if needed?

■How well can my child adhere to school guidelines of masking and social distancing?

■If I choose remote learning from home, do I have adequate supervision?

For many families, there will be no option: Their children will have to return to school. Parents will have to trust that the planning educators have put in place will be thoughtful. This will cause expected anxiety for both children and parents as they move from a place of social distance, even within extended families, to the necessity of navigating the modified physical contact that school provides.

Even now, with the heat of summer allowing outside activity and the wish to avoid these concerns, it is important to begin conversations at home. For even the smallest children, the excitement of seeing friends and returning to the familiarity of the classroom may be overshadowed by the fear of contagion. By necessity, families have had to teach their children that touching and physical closeness are “dangerous.” Helping them to now prepare to move back into the school setting is a process, best served by thoughtful comments and questions introduced and explored over the next month.

“I wonder if you have been thinking about … ?” is a good way to begin. Young children live more in the present, while adolescents can anticipate the future more fully, but all ages need the prompts to conversation that parents can provide. Be patient, and allow for avoidance, but continue to provide opportunities for the preparation that this new school year will demand.

For families who have the option of keeping their children at home, there are another set of concerns: How to explain to your child, at any age, that, though their friends may be returning to school, they will not? The issues of safety and contagion have been part of their lives, but revisiting the conversations you first had when school abruptly ended in March will be received differently now. If others are safe enough to return to school, why can’t they? In anticipation of these questions, we highly recommend teaming up with one or two other families (see the Atkinson Family Practice Homestead Model) to help support parents and broaden social interactions for members of each family. Through this careful process, you are able to talk with your child about the need for safety and community, each person providing support and the opportunity to be close with others. If this is not possible, parents will have to address these questions, with an awareness that, as the weather gets colder, anger, frustration, sadness and feelings of isolation may appear. Families able to keep children home for schooling should develop systems to organize “school days,” with appropriate time for adolescents to privately use social media to connect with friends and for young children to have “play dates,” whatever the weather.

We all continue to be concerned about the best ways to handle school decisions. With no perfect solution possible, working to create a family atmosphere that makes room for difficult feelings and behaviors, while assuring children that they are learning a great deal about their strengths and ability to adapt to a difficult time, is an important goal.

In the meantime, wash your hands!

Dr. Kate Atkinson is a family physician at Atkinson Family Practice in Northampton and Amherst. Janet Nelson is a retired child psychologist.
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