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The Kids Will Not Be All Right: The Psychological Effects of Returning to School in a Pandemic

By Jordan Dowdell

As schools begin to reopen, there is a divide between people wanting them to open and others who want virtual learning. Schools have never been solely about academics; they have also been about socialization, students’ health, and psychological well-being. The schools wanting to reopen have been touting mask wearing and frequent hand-washing to keep students, faculty, and families safe, but they frequently disregard the many negative psychological effects.

Many people who promote going back to school say interacting with fellow students will boost students’ morale, but they fail to understand that when students go back it won't be like pre-Covid. The CDC has been advocating for the reopening of schools by saying that it will, “provide a stable and secure environment for developing social skills and peer relationships.” The problem is that schools can't provide such an environment while cases are still rising throughout the nation.

First off, students will not be returning to a normal school setting where they can freely interact and get close to one another, and this may be distressing for students. Since March, students have only seen friends in small groups of fewer than ten, and for them to enter a school with potentially hundreds of masked students, one-way paths to avoid contact, and maybe even plexiglass walls to separate us, students may feel disturbed and trapped. Additionally, middle and high school students may not be allowed to participate in extracurriculars, or if they are allowed, will need to stay distant from each other. This negates the reason we join a club: to be together enjoying shared interests. Asking young children in the elementary school not to touch each other and not to share supplies will feel odd to them and will be a challenge.

Another significant issue affecting students’ mental health will be to manage their guilt if a classmate, faculty, family, or friend gets sick and potentially dies. They are being instructed to protect themselves from people they trust, and that’s a burden that anybody of any age shouldn’t have. Students are also going to blame themselves if someone they know gets sick, and if that person dies, the student will forever feel responsible for it.

Additionally, children with pre-existing mental disabilities and special education needs such as IEPs and 504s are going to have difficulty adjusting to the new protocols. A person with ADHD who already faces challenges paying attention in class will have a greater problem with the additional stress of not interacting with others or being allowed to active.

Trust is also the basis of being mentally healthy. If the administration says it’s safe to come into school, but they can’t be near each other, are divided by walls in class, and have the chance of school shutting down the next day if a person from the school is sick, how can students trust them?

It’s reasonable that a lot of children want to return to school to see friends and engage in class activity. It's understandable that parents want their kids to live a normal life and have a normal education even in the face of vast uncertainty. Remote learning isn't perfect, and the shortfalls have been recorded. Certainly, keeping children stuck inside is mentally damaging. And of course, parents aren't teachers. They can’t provide the same things teachers do. In single parent households, or households in which both parents must work, the difficulties are compounded.

There are no perfect solutions, but as schools plan on reopening, we must remember that behind all the rules and walls of glass, there are students with thoughts and real emotions. These students, myself included, are depending on the school to get it right so that when we do return, we feel safe, physically and emotionally, and can properly learn in these uncertain times.

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