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As most school districts aim to fully reopen this fall, anxiety is high among many parents who find themselves wondering if the mental and physical benefits of returning to school outweigh the risk of their child contracting COVID-19.  

While the answer isn't simple, the value of in-person learning can't be ignored. "Kids have probably suffered the most socially during the pandemic," notes Dr. Katharine Miao, regional medical director at CityMD. "It's very important that they're able to go about their normal, daily lives."

Why is attending school important to my child's mental health?

"Learning to socialize and building friendships are fundamental parts of child development," explains Erica Jungels, LCSW, LCADC, therapist and member of the Summit Health Behavioral Health and Cognitive Therapy team. "As children get older, friendships become more important. They’re a vital part of learning about yourself.” School isn't just a place for children to learn and see their friends, she adds, but also a place to learn socially acceptable behavior. Interaction with others teaches kids:

  • How to take turns
  • How to participate in conversations
  • How to follow directions
  • How to work collaboratively

Am I putting my child at risk?

American Academy of Pediatrics urges in-person learning and masking in its guidance on safe schools. Further, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place, including universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

While no child is at zero risk, "the benefits of in-person learning are clear,” says Dr. Miao. “Based on the experience of the past year, schools now know what is needed to keep kids safe.” In addition, those above 12 years old are now eligible for vaccination, adding another layer of safety.

Talk to your child's school to find out:

  • How they are handling social distancing
  • If they require indoor masking
  • Ensuring that students, teachers, and staff do not come to school if they are not feeling well

Express any concerns you have, but don't ask the school to take it to extremes. For example, taking every student's temperature every day is likely unnecessary, says Dr. Miao.

Still, it's important that parents monitor their children's health carefully. If your child has a temperature or shows signs of illness, keep them home from school and get them tested for COVID-19.

How can my child socialize safely?

"Kids should be kids," Jungels says. "There are opportunities for them to socialize while being safe." As Dr. Miao points out, outdoor play and sports are a great opportunity for children to interact without putting themselves at much risk, while indoor masking allows children to play in a relatively low-risk manner. It's also a great way to jump-start physical activity that fell by the wayside while kids were at home. "School-based activities like sports, clubs, and dances are important to so many children," says Jungels.

How will my child handle the return to school?

Since no two children are the same, some may jump back in while others will find it more difficult. "Some children will struggle this next year academically," Jungels explains. "The demands of virtual schooling were very different than their prior in-person schooling." That said, educators are well aware that the past year-and-a-half was unprecedented, and many schools are adjusting their curriculums to help students reach academic goals. "We have to take into consideration children's stamina when returning to a full school schedule," Jungels says. 

It may take time for students to reacclimate to a full day of academic work, school activities, and homework. One way to make it easier, Jungels says, is giving children a space to talk about how they are feeling. "Parents should incorporate time during the day for them to talk about how they are adjusting and normalize that it can look different person-to-person."