Tips to Ease the Back-to-School Transition

Having survived an unprecedented school year in which many children logged in to classes from their bedrooms or kitchen tables, attended in person part-time or not at all, and had activities and family life upended by a global pandemic, Bay Area families are eager for a more normal return to school this year.

Signs are promising that local schools will be back in session full time and in person, but it may still be too soon to expect “normal” just yet. With children under 12 not expected to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in time for the start of the school year, masks and social distancing measures may still be required. And schools and families will need to address the impacts of the pandemic on children, from mental health issues to learning loss.

The challenges of typical back-to-school transitions – from first-day jitters and separation anxiety to simply getting everyone out of the door on time – could easily be exacerbated after more than a year in which families spent more time than ever at home.

“In a normal summer, there would be some talk about transitions. Maybe you need to drive by the school and see the new classroom, or talk about how third grade will be different than second grade,” says Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with Stanford’s Graduate School of Education that promotes student wellbeing and engagement with learning. “This year more than others, it’s really important to remember to do that. ... There’s a real chance these kids have not been back in school at all. Maybe they’ve done Zoom the whole time.”

Getting back into healthy routines, from normal sleep schedules and mealtimes to just getting dressed in the morning, will be especially important for kids and parents who may have spent more than a year doing school and work from home in PJs.

 Social and Emotional Impacts

Paying attention to how kids are handling the transition back to school socially and emotionally will be especially important this year.

“Just because we’ve opened up our schools and let (students) come back doesn’t mean they’re healed” from the trauma of the pandemic, says Rebecca London, an associate professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz who studies schools and children’s welfare. That trauma runs the gamut from the loss of peer connections and milestones to family job losses, economic and food insecurity, and illness and death caused by the pandemic, she says.

“We should expect that (kids are) going to go back to normal and can signal to them that it’s safe, but we need to recognize that they may not be able to jump right back in,” London says. “Some kids will be able to but some kids are going to find that hard.”

“Isolation may have been easier for them because they could retreat into their computer games or not be on display,” she adds. “Imagine going (back) into class with 30 students. That’s a lot of social interaction at once.”

But experts agree that the loss of social interaction and the other benefits of in-person schooling – from academics to providing a refuge for at-risk kids – have taken a toll on children. Bay Area health officers, who instituted the nation’s first stay-at-home orders of the pandemic in March 2020, banded together this summer to push for a full return to in-person school, saying it could be done safely. California ranked last of the 50 states in returning children to in-person school, according to data collected by Burbio.

“The cost to our kids by keeping them out of school in remote learning is immense and far outweighs any benefit,” said San Mateo County Health Officer Scott Morrow, M.D., citing increases in anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation, and drug and alcohol abuse in youth. The Centers for Disease Control reported a 31% increase in 2020 in mental health-related emergency department visits among youth ages 12-17. In addition, Bay Area hospitals saw a 66-75% increase in suicidal ideation among 10- to 17-year-olds, according to UCSF’s Monica Gandhi, M.D., and Kyle Hunter, M.P.H.

State legislation allowing distance learning in place of in-person schooling was expected to expire at the end of June, though some schools were exploring offering some type of remote learning alternatives for families still leery of in-person schooling or with medically vulnerable children.

Pope says it’s important to try to tease out normal re-entry jitters from larger problems.

“Touch base and check in with your kid early: ‘How are you feeling? Are you looking forward to it? Do you have any worries?’ … If you’re seeing signs of depression or anxiety, you want to call your pediatrician or the school counselor,” she says.

“I’m really encouraging people to err on the side of calling: 1. It doesn’t hurt. And 2. We are anticipating long-term mental health repercussions after so many months of isolation, particularly in teens,” Pope adds.

London advocates that schools and families focus on healing before tackling any academic deficits caused by the pandemic. For schools, that could mean starting the year with reconnection, community building and support, and a focus on shared values and empathy. For families, it means acknowledging what children lost in the last year-plus and helping kids work through it. Ideas include volunteering, journaling, getting out in nature and, especially, helping kids re-establish connections with their peers.

“I’m not saying academics don’t matter,” London says. “Academics matter so much, but you can’t get to them until you’ve done the other stuff first because kids won’t be ready for it.”

 Pandemic Learning Loss

There are significant concerns, from parents and teachers alike, that many children did not learn last year what they would have in a normal school year, with causes from reduced instructional minutes to a failure to grasp concepts over Zoom.

But “if we could take a broad view of schooling and think about it as something more than the content and curriculum you’re supposed to cover, … one of the things we’d realize is that living in a pandemic is a learning experience. It may not be the learning experience you expected, but I would not minimize what kids have learned – they’ve learned a lot of things,” London says.

“All this focus on learning loss is really hard because it puts pressure on children to feel like they have to make up for lost time,” she adds.

Pope similarly says parents should not stress about their children being behind academically when the new school year starts.

“I don’t want parents to go out and buy workbooks and force their kids in August to do catch-up,” she says. “Really let the professionals, who are the educators, do the addressing of that. Schools are really taking stock. The second-grade teachers are asking the first-grade teachers” ‘What didn’t you cover?’ They’re not just going to start as if nothing happened. Everyone is fully aware.”

The best thing parents can do to help their child academically is to encourage free reading, Pope says. It’s highly correlated with academic achievement and is typically viewed by children as a pleasure, not a chore.

As for a return to “normal” school, Pope cautions that normal wasn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

“School wasn’t working for a whole bunch of kids in 2019 to have this idea that it’s going to go back to ‘normal’ and everything is going to be rosy,” she says. “Kids are overscheduled and there’s a lot of social pressure at school, never mind everything going on in the world.”

Pope urges families to remember and hold onto some of the positives of the pandemic shutdown and restrictions – “the family meals, the slower pace, the ability to take walks after dinner.”

“I’m a little worried about this ‘let’s go full speed,’” Pope says, “that with this craving to go back to your old life that (people) are going to overdo it.”

Janine DeFao is an associate editor of Bay Area Parent.