In addition to buying school supplies, sorting after school schedules and packing lunches, parents now face critical decisions about masking, vaccinations and in-person attendance in yet another school year affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Delta variant, general uncertainty and school protocols (or lack thereof) have left parents across the U.S. reeling.
“We experienced a lot of grief last year in the loss of the school year in many parts of the country,” said Kendra Adachi, author and mother of three from Greensboro, North Carolina. “We’re scared and crave normalcy. We’re exhausted from trying to help our kids thrive in abnormal environments. It’s a lot.”
For some families, school has already resumed. Jessica Blonde, a dance educator from Gilbert, Arizona, sent her kids to first and third grade on July 26. Already, there have been Covid-19 outbreaks at their school, and the high school’s football teams are currently quarantining. Because cases rose so quickly, the elementary school Blonde's children attend temporarily suspended non-essential visitors and assemblies. Though the school cannot legally require mask-wearing, it is now encouraging it. Blonde’s biggest fear is that her kids could “become seriously ill, or worse. It doesn't matter how statistically unlikely it is—as a parent, that fear is always there. Because it does indeed happen, and those children are more than statistics to the families who love them.”
How can parents protect themselves from burnout and overwhelm in the face of so many challenges and policy changes? Know Your Value spoke with several experts—who happen to be mothers themselves—to find out how to manage the stress of yet another uncertain school year.
“Focus on what is controllable without trying to control everything.”
In her work with Dear Pandemic, a women-run organization that empowers people to navigate the Covid-19 information overwhelm, Aparna Kumar focuses on mental health issues. Kumar, a mother and an assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, urged parents to prepare for school with their children, looking toward the future and setting expectations in a realistic way: ““Focus on what is controllable without trying to control everything.”
In fact, focusing on the things that are within your control was the top advice across the board. Bryce Reddy, a counselor in Cape Cod, Massachusetts known as "The Mom Brain Therapist," said, “As with anything in life, we only have so much control over what we're dealt … Leaning into what we can control as parents is a good place to start.”
Ashley Z. Ritter, chief executive officer of Dear Pandemic and a mother of three from Yardley, Pennsylvania, suggested doing things like thinking through a back-up plan should schools temporarily close and making sure you have the type of masks your child will tolerate on hand. “Think outside the box to maintain things that are important to your child but can’t happen as planned,” she said.
Stay in the present and educate yourself on the facts.
Blonde said that worrying about “what ifs” about her kids going to school in a high transmission area in Arizona sends her into “a spiral of frustration and fear.”
“It’s natural to jump to the worst possible case scenarios,” said Paige Bellenbaum, founding director of The Motherhood Center, an organization focusing on maternal mental health. Instead, we should try to ground ourselves and refocus on what’s happening right now.
She also suggested “identifying a couple of resources that you trust wholeheartedly to be true.” Rather than getting school news from Facebook groups or playground conversations, use resources like your pediatrician, the CDC or your state’s Covid-19 data center.
Reddy agreed: “Doing our best to stay up-to-date on our school system's plans and how that relates to the larger national best practices for individuals and children can help us better grasp the ‘why’ of what is required of us from our children's school or childcare provider while also helping us make informed decisions.”
Keep the line of communication with your teachers open.
Concerned about the effect of masking or social distancing on your son? Wondering if your daughter fell behind socially or academically because of remote schooling? Rather than worry about it, have a conversation with your child’s teacher.
Jessica Miller, a sixth-grade teacher from Kenmore, New York, said, “I am committed to keeping communication open with the parents of my students so that they will trust me to keep their kids healthy.” Miller felt reassured because her own children—in sixth, ninth, and twelfth grades—are all vaccinated and will be wearing masks in school. “I just feel like we need to do everything in our power to keep kids in school this year. It’s vitally important for their mental and emotional health.”
Seek help if things feel out of control.
Don’t feel bad if you’re having an especially difficult time. “I’d like to offer some permission to all the moms to not judge yourself for the stress that you’re feeling,” said Adachi.
But if that stress is affecting other areas of your life, it may be time to ask for help.
“There are wonderful counselors and professionals that can give a sounding board for concerns and struggles, while also supporting you with skills to negotiate the unpredictable nature of life during a pandemic,” said Reddy. “Whatever happens this year, our own and our children's mental health is a priority.”
The mother of two teenagers in Brooklyn, New York, Bellenbaum certainly agreed: “This past year has been one of the most challenging socially and emotionally for children of this age, and in particular, for one of my children. The increase in mental health issues that have arisen for the adolescent population is profound.” Even though she’s a licensed master social worker, she admitted that she is “trying to manage it, too.”
Bellenbaum said that kids are never “too young” to seek therapy or support from a school guidance counselor or child therapist because “the sooner we catch these anxieties or symptoms of depression, the sooner we set them up for success.”
And don’t forget your own self-care.
Self-care—in whatever form it takes for you—is essential and helps build our mental flexibility. Daily self-care practices “can help us be prepared to navigate the unpredictability of changes that might occur along the way in the world outside our homes,” said Reddy.
Kumar said, “The number one thing I tell parents is that we have to manage our own emotional reactivity if we want our children to be able to manage their emotions. So, self-care, although it sounds silly, is critical. What can you do for yourself to release stress? Is it exercise? Is it taking five minutes out of the day? Is it drinking your coffee in silence? Do what works for you.”