Why My Kids’ Mental Health Mandates Back To School

Why My Kids’ Mental Health Mandates Back To School

Of the many decisions we as parents have to make on our kids’ behalf, possibly the hardest to make is whether they should go back to school in September during a pandemic.

No one could have predicted back in March that school would close. There was a province-wide groan from parents in Ontario when the government announced that all daycares and schools would be closed for two weeks after March Break. This was to allow a 14-day isolation period for families returning from vacations abroad. Businesses shut down temporarily, their employees prepared to work from home for the time being.

Here we are, five months later, still at home though things have started to slowly open up. Restaurants have moved from patio seating only to spaced indoor tables. Daycares can have a very small population return. Masks are mandatory in indoor public spaces, and social distancing of two meters still applies outdoors.

This gradual relaxing of the rules has been such a mental relief, even though the risk of contagion still exists. The virus is still out there, without a cure or vaccine. We’re doing this jig between physical and mental health, not just our own but for our friends, our neighbors, our children.

Schools Set To Re-Open

Then, the hammer fell: the government announced early August that schools will reopen in September.

It’s important to note here that not all schools are fully open five days a week. Secondary students will have online options, with in-class study partly available. Primary schools are slated to be fully open, at full capacity, with full day learning in class.

This announcement has left parents with more questions than answers. Yes, there will be mandatory mask wearing for kids Grade 4 and up, frequent hand washing and staggered breaks to allow movement between cohorts without crowding. Yet, there has been no mention of any initiative to limit class sizes.

It’s staggering that pub crawlers are provided more risk aversion methods with spaced seating than our young students.

There are a lot of things a parent has to consider when contemplating whether their children will return to public education. Once again, it’s a mental dance between the lesser of two risks. Let’s break them down into separate lists.

Pro

  • Socialization With Others
  • Structure in the Classroom
  • A Sense of Normality

Socialization With Others

My son enjoys his alone time, but he’s always been a very social person. Since he was a preschooler, he would walk right up to a group of kids and join right into any game they were playing. For the past five months he’s been shut up in his room 5 days a week while I’m working in the living room, watching YouTube and TikTok for hours. It’s his only socialization now, besides the neighbourhood kids that he can’t play with now but can hear laughing outside.

Social isolation is unhealthy for everyone, but I feel especially bad for extroverts like my son who gravitates to people but can’t interact with them. Being in a classroom with his peers will be really good for him.

Day Care for us is now open, with a limited population. Since he’s been back, his mood has improved significantly. There are changes of course: kids are not allowed to play with each other unless they are outside. He hates that he can’t play with his friends in the ways he used to, but just being around them and socializing has made such a difference to his mental health.

Related Article: EFFECTS OF LOCKDOWN ON ADOLESCENT MENTAL HEALTH AND TIPS TO STAY MENTALLY HEALTHY

Structure in the Classroom

I admit it – we did NOT have much structure during the day. As a single, working-from-home mother to two young kids it was all I could do to keep on my meeting conference calls and the occasional email, let alone have a structured homeschool environment. Both my kids would need my full attention: the 3rd grader because he can’t do anything on his own, and the preschooler because she’s literally climbing over me naked half the day. I tried a schedule for two whole days before we all gave up, and went back to screens. It’s a shitty way for the kids to spend the day, but it was the only way I could get any work done.

School is pure structure. Teachers spend hours and hours creating lesson plans that are perfected over the years to suit each individual learner. This is their specialty. The classroom has a defined space for each activity. The school day is cut into familiar chunks of time. There is such reassurance in structure, and if school is opening up you better believe that I’m getting the kids there everyday before nine. Their mental health needs it.

A Sense of Normality

There is no question that we will never return to the world as it was in the beginning of 2020. Things are settling into their “new normal”, which includes mask-wearing and elbow bumps instead of high-fives. However, as spaces open up it also allows us all to breathe a little better as we slowly do the things we used to do. For kids, their normal routine was school all the time, until it was the weekend.

Frankly, I’m sure that there are many kids out there who would prefer to stay at home all day – like my son – but really what I think is important is to allow that normality back. He may not like school, but he does like it when he can see his friends again.

When we started getting up with purpose every morning to get them to day care, things shifted. That first morning when we walked to school (the daycare is in the school) along the usual path, we all felt a weight lifted from our shoulders. It felt GOOD to get back to what was familiar. Even when we knew we would all be temperature checked by mask-wearing ECEs behind a plexiglass shield.

Some “old” normal in this “new” normal is well appreciated by my kids’ mental health.

Cons

  • Risk of Infection
  • Kids Flouting the Rules
  • Anxiety Over the Unknown

Risk of Infection

Really what this comes down to is a choice between physical health and mental health. At the present time, my kids are healthy and strong, but their mental health is suffering. I’ve talked about my son’s behavior, but it’s clear that my younger daughter is suffering too. This usually independent four-year-old who can play on her own with her imagination for hours is suddenly in my face, demanding full-on attention. It’s the worst when I’m on a conference call. She gets so jealous that she will literally drape her body across mine, and do everything possible to get my attention away from the screen.

There is a risk that they will become infected with Covid-19, but I have to weigh this with the safety measures the school board is putting in place. At this time, I am planning to continue to monitor the situation, and their health, and will pack them up to go to school every morning. Their mental health currently takes priority.

Kids Flouting The Rules

The Ontario government has decreed that kids in Grade 4-9 are mandated to wear a mask while inside the building. Kids in kindergarden to Grade 3 are exempt. This makes sense to me. My older child understands the need to wear a mask, even though he doesn’t like it. Trying to convince my daughter to pull it up to cover her nose is a losing battle. I can’t even imagine trying to get a roomful of younger kids to keep their masks on.

The real risk is mask fatigue. The novelty of wearing a mask at school will keep the majority of kids on point. However, wearing a mask for an hour while grocery shopping is a much different situation than wearing one for 6 hours. How long until the kids break the rules? A month? Two? Will we as parents and teachers be able to keep them in check?

Maybe I’m just being paranoid, and the teachers will be able to use that magical authority they yield to keep them in line. The kids seem to be better behaved around them in general – maybe this magic power extends to mask-wearing as well.

Anxiety Over The Unknown

When the kids are around you 24-7, you know exactly where they are and what they are doing. You can monitor their actions closely in your nest. Drop your kid off at school, and your line of sight vanishes immediately. There is no way of seeing into that classroom to check on their every movement. Are they sitting too close to their deskmate? She’s not going to eat that candy on the floor, is she? What if someone is coughing on them right now?!

I’m going to equate this to leaving your baby with their new daycare. It’s truly anxiety-provoking not to be around them, not knowing what’s going on. If they’re okay. But at the end of the day, when you pick them up and they have all of their limbs, everything is okay. Their care provider did their job, and took care of your little one.

I have to trust that the professionals know their job, and also truly care for my children. I have to keep faith that they will do their best to protect them, and will let me know immediately otherwise. The secretary calls me to let me know if one of them has fallen and hit their head at recess. They will let me know if they think my children’s safety is compromised.

September Is Still A Month Away

Really, all we can do during this unprecedented time is to take the information we have at the moment, and make the choices that work best for us. Regardless of the kids stay home, remote learning, or go to school full time, whatever each family decides is what is right. These are my reasons – you may agree with some, disagree with others, or think I’m completely batty. I’m hoping that it helps bring some clarity to your own decisions.

Besides, school is still weeks away, and during this pandemic that’s enough time for this thing to turn on its head again. One decision at a time.

Sarah Gallagher is the widowed, solo mom to two vibrant kids. Since her husband unexpectedly died in 2014, she's been taking one big step at a time. Life is unimaginably amazing, and her goal is to help other widowed parents find their inspired life again.

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