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Is school safe? How to check your anxiety about sending kids back

The dangers are real, but so is the anxiety.
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

There was a time when parents struggling with remote learning (read: all parents) saw sending kids back to school as the promised land, a welcome relief to the return of whatever “normal” awaited.

But with COVID-19 continuing to spread, parents around the U.S. have justifiable fear about the dangers facing children, teachers and themselves. Many are asking if their kids should go back to school and are opting to home-school or go fully remote. Others are biting their fingernails as they prepare to send their kids out the door.

At the risk of giving parents another thing to worry about: Experts say parents’ own anxiety may be making the situation worse.

“Kids take their cues from their parents about how to react to the events that are going on around them,” says Nadine Burke Harris, the Surgeon General of California and an expert in child trauma. “If they cue into their parents’ stress, that can activate the child’s stress response.”

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If you’re stressed, your kids will surely know it, says Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, a psychologist and parenting coach.

“Unfortunately, there’s no ‘faking calm’ when it comes to kids, and research shows that when parents try to hide their stress from their kids, it actually increases, rather than decreases, children’s own stress levels,” she says.

So how can you manage your fear and avoid transmitting it to nervous kids? Here are some things to consider.

First things first: How worried should you be?

We’d love to say there’s nothing to worry about, but there is evidence that children do spread the virus, so parents will need to take a close look at transmission in their own community.

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Dr. Emily Oster, who has been tracking coronavirus information at COVID Explained, considers community transmission of less than 75 per 100,000 in the previous week and a positive testing rate of 5% or below a good benchmark for when it’s safe to return. She was persuaded by the opinion of three medical experts who advise companies about how to respond to COVID-19. Oster says all numbers are tricky, given variable testing rates, but “their reasoning seems basically sound to me.”

Other questions to ask:

  • How is your child’s school maintaining social distancing?
  • Did your child manage remote schooling well?
  • How will the school screen children and isolate positive cases?
  • How can your child can get to school safely?

“The more information you can seek and relationships you can build to allay your fears, the better off your child will be,” says Jennifer Miller, a family and educational consultant and founder of Confident Parents, Confident Kids. “Do what you can to start off the year feeling like you and your family are in good hands.”

For what it’s worth, Oster, who lives in Rhode Island, plans to send her kids if their schools open. “They are young — both in elementary school — so I think fall into the group which benefits the most and is at lowest risk,” she says.

If you’re sending kids to school

So you’re sending your kid to school. Is your stomach in knots? Children will pick up on that, so now is the time to manage your own anxiety.

“It’s a little bit ironic that for parents, one of the most important things they can do to ensure their child’s well being is to practice self-care for themselves,” Burke Harris says.

To burn up stress hormones, she recommends daily exercise, mindfulness, fish and nuts with Omega 3 fatty acids and a regular sleep routine — something you’ll want to think about for the whole family before school starts.

“When we go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning, we train our brain,” she says. “While we are sleeping, our stress response resets itself.”

Dr. Laura Markham, author of "Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids," says it’s normal to feel anxious, but it can be harmful to take actions that make your child feel more fearful.

“Anxiety is just another word for fear, so it's helpful for parents to acknowledge the fears they are experiencing,” she says. “It's very helpful to talk to someone you trust who is non-judgmental and will just listen as you process.”

Therapy can help, but so can writing in a journal, meditating and exercising.

“Parents can also talk back to their worry,” Markham says. “For instance, the parent might say to themselves, ‘Yes, it is hard for my child to return to school. But this is something she needs to do. I will give her extra support before and after school to help her. She can handle this.’”