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As In-person School Increases, So Can Student Anxiety

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AP Photo / Keith Srakocic, File
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Governor Northam has said he wants kids back in school by mid-March.

But as more schools gear up to re-open or increase their in-classroom days, mental health experts warn that the return to in-person education may be stressful for students.

As school systems across Virginia turn the corner from a year online, even well-adjusted kids like 14-year-old Ava, feel ambivalent.  “Because we’ve gone for like a whole year, it’s going to be throwing you into a huge social situation again. I don’t know, it feels like I’d be out of practice with, like, talking.”

The isolation imposed by a pandemic has been hard on people of all ages, but it’s especially tough for teens who expected to pass key milestones to maturity.  “I’ve never been to a high school dance. I haven’t been able to see school musicals, and stuff like that, haven’t really been able to participate in regular high school social activities.”

Many adolescents have been in contact with friends through social media and on Zoom, but child counselor George Enfield says virtual encounters are not the same.  “Adolescents and kids in particular are positioned to learn about social interactions through interpersonal exchanges, and the screens change that interaction," Enfield notes.  "So, it’s intrinsically different.”

Some of Enfield’s patients are excited by the prospect of in-person class again, while others are more worried.  “Because having so many people around, in and of itself, is terrifying, and the notion of being on Zoom with my camera on or my camera off, feels safer in some ways than others.”

Region 10 staff – who offer mental health services to children and adults across Charlottesville, and Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, and Louisa Counties – have been busy.  “Teens are experiencing a tremendous amount of loss: loss of opportunity, loss of experiences, loss of skill-building, loss of connection. And teens don’t know how to grieve that loss,”  says Region 10 child counselor Joanna Jennings.

Jennings has seen many kids who were stressed or depressed during the pandemic. She expects mental health problems to persist. “We’re really anticipating an epidemic of anxiety, OCD, and post-traumatic stress disorders, around just the ongoing stress of the pandemic, but then also, too, to the angst of returning to somewhat normal life, and what that looks like for kids. Things have been very unpredictable and felt in a lot of ways very out of control.  And when things feel out of control, that typically increases anxiety symptoms.” 

So, what can parents do to ease the transition back to school?  Jennings says it’s important to be predictable, establish routines, keep talking. “Listen, listen, listen is so, so important for young people to feel heard, and validated and understood," Jennings says.  “The parental relationship is such a powerful tool right now for building connection. Safety and connection really are the building blocks of resilience, and really are what help teens and young people to buffer stress.”

Enfield adds that having fun with your kids—even with your teenagers—is important, too.  “We’re so wrapped up in the moment and so worried about not saying the right things that we forget that play is actually really healing. Trying to find fun with your kids. And trying to encourage your kids to find fun. And when those things happen, stress dissipates, depression drops, anxiety drops because we’re allowed to relax.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.