Coronavirus In Australia: How To Cope With Back-To-School Anxiety

What’s worrying parents most as face-to-face teaching resumes in Australia amid COVID-19.
Children return to campus for the first day of New South Wales public schools fully re-opening for all students and staff amidst the easing of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions at Homebush West Public School in Sydney.  REUTERS/Loren Elliott
Children return to campus for the first day of New South Wales public schools fully re-opening for all students and staff amidst the easing of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions at Homebush West Public School in Sydney. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Like every unprecedented development during the coronavirus pandemic, Sydney mum Peri Wilson’s first reaction to schools returning in May was that of anxiety.

With roughly two months of home-based learning under their belt, Wilson’s family had finally worked out “a good system” but face-to-face teaching resumes at schools this week and the decision comes with a certain amount of risk.

Although health authorities along with state and federal politicians continue to say children are at less risk of spreading COVID-19 than adults, there are other worries of the minds of families.

Australia has reported just over 7,100 COVID-19 infections, including 102 deaths, well below figures reported by other developed countries.

Here’s what you need to know:

What’s Worrying Parents?

For the Wilson family, it’s public transport.

“My 13-year-old son goes to a high school that’s too far away to walk and in peak hour traffic is about a 15-20 mins drive each way,” Wilson told HuffPost Australia.

“That’s a lot of time to spend away from my desk dropping off and picking up, but I’m really worried about the bus. Will he even get on with the reduced capacity? It could potentially double his commute time.

“It’s also a pretty tense world out there at the moment, and I worry about him commuting with highly stressed/anxious people.”

Wilson and her husband have worked out a roster to take their son to school in the mornings but, like many other students in metro areas, he’ll get the bus in the afternoons.

“We’ve got 1.2 million kids on the move,” NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance told Channel 9 on Monday. “We just need everyone to be patient.”

Back to school anxieties and how to deal with them.
Back to school anxieties and how to deal with them.

Data Suggests Schools Are Safe

Working off the latest evidence, Australian health authorities have consistently said schools are safe for pupils amid this pandemic. Researchers from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne and Telethon Kids ­Institute in Perth said data suggests children are not huge spreaders of coronavirus in the community.

Our PM Scott Morrison said in March, “I’m telling you as a father, I’m happy for my kids to go to school” and reiterated on Monday that reopening face-to-face teaching is essential to revive Australia’s economy.

In NSW, from March to mid-April 2020, 18 individuals (nine students and nine staff) from 15 schools contracted COVID, 735 students and 128 staff were close contacts of these initial 18 cases but no teacher or staff member contracted the virus from any of the initial school cases.

Millions of dollars has been injected into creating COVID-safe schools, including extra cleaning and more hygiene products for classrooms.

It’s Normal To Feel Anxious

It’s very normal for parents and children to experience some levels of anxiety Matt Gardiner, Executive Director of Save the Children’s Australian Services told HuffPost Australia.

“We also need to remember that schools play an important role in supporting children’s mental health too,” he said.

“For children, being back in the classroom and seeing their friends is really important for their emotional wellbeing. By extension, many parents will feel less anxious when they see that their children are happy and coping too.”

A recent Save the Children global survey showed that one in four children living under COVID-19 lockdowns were experiencing some form of anxiety and many were at risk of lasting psychological distress and depression. Gardiner urged parents to send their kids back to the classroom ASAP to give them the best chance at recovering from the past two months of unsteadiness.

“We know that the longer children are out of school, particularly children from vulnerable or disadvantaged backgrounds, the less likely they will be to go back to school,” he said.

“We need to make sure the most disadvantaged children are really supported and encouraged to return to schooling and stay engaged in education. This will support children’s emotional wellbeing in the short-term while also helping to ensure they are as well prepared for the future as possible.”

Also Feeling Totally Relieved? You’re Not Alone.

Parents may feel a sense of guilt about feeling so relieved when their child is finally back in the classroom, Australian-based stress and trauma Psychologist Dr Scott Lyons explained.

“It is absolutely normal to have some relief that comes with not having to take care of your children all day … especially for parents that were also trying to manage work and their own feelings around the pandemic,” Dr Lyons told HuffPost Australia.

“Just because you enjoy some space from your children, doesn’t mean you love them any less.

“Having that space can certainly help a parent feel more regulated- which will inevitably allow them to be more present for their children. “

For working mothers like Wilson, the demands of playing parent and teacher had its challenges.

“I’m fortunate in that I have teenagers - only one of which has been learning remotely. I have no idea how parents with younger kids have coped,” she said while adding that home schooling a 13-year-old meant a constant struggle of balancing screen time with other activities and making sure “unchecked access to a computer” didn’t go too awry.

“I tried to be present enough to make sure he was stepping away from the computer at break times - but it was hard if I had a lot of meetings,” she said.

“My husband still had to go into the office, so I went a bit mad feeling like I was fighting these battles on my own - but he took over in the evenings so I could clock off. There were also a few days where he stayed home to help if I was at the end of my rope.”

Back to school anxieties and how to deal with them.
Back to school anxieties and how to deal with them.

What If Your Child Doesn’t Want to Go Back?

It is a strange aspect of parenting during the coronavirus pandemic that you can spend so (soooo) many hours with your kids during the week, and they can still be hungry for more of your time and attention. Especially the very young ones.

One major reason why kids cling to their parents is because they are trying really hard to help themselves feel safe and comforted, explained Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University.

“Clinginess is an instinctual response to perceived threat and anxiety. In evolutionary terms, offspring of all species are more likely to survive if they stay close to their parents for protection when danger is imminent,” he told HuffPost. “Children have this encoded into their biology, and it can be triggered by the stresses and uncertainties of a global pandemic.”

Clinging, then, is the visible manifestation of your child’s effort to cope with all of the changes and the uncertainty in their world right now.

To help, try to dig into the specific source of their unease.

“The question becomes, what exactly are they anxious about? Contracting the illness? Death? Like so many things, clinginess should be understood in context,” Mark Reinecke, a clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Child Mind Institute’s San Francisco Bay Area centre, told HuffPost.

Kids are remarkably perceptive. So even if you’re doing your best to keep them away from too much news or maintaining some level of routine at home, they might be picking up on other emotions from you that are making them uneasy. In turn, they might cling to you even more, looking for reassurance.

So just check in with yourself and your partner about the kinds of messages you’re putting out there. Experts aren’t saying you can’t or shouldn’t acknowledge how hard this all is, but you should be really mindful of how much fear or anxiety they can feel coming from you. That will also help ground them in some level of confidence that you’re not going putting them in an unsafe position.

“In ambiguous situations, young children turn to their parents for guidelines on how to respond,” Reinecke said. “If the parent is confident and self-assured, the child will perceive this. Is the child’s anxiety inadvertently being modeled or maintained at home?”

Back to school anxieties and how to deal with them.
Back to school anxieties and how to deal with them.

Will You Be Fined For Keeping Your Kids Off School?

Not exactly. Authorities are urging parents to keep their children at home if they show even the mildest sign of illness.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said Monday that she realises there will be some parents who choose to keep their kids home purely because they’re nervous about COVID-19. She confirmed their child will be marked as absent and there will be a follow-up process.

“That is a matter for them (the parents) but their children will be marked as absent,” she told reporters.

“We are not changing a policy. I appreciate that a small percentage of parents make those choices, but all choices have consequences, and that is a matter for them.”

What’s The Latest Across States And Territories?

Even though Scott Morrison pleaded with teachers to keep classes open in April, each premier or chief minister decided how they tackled the issues of schools staying open - which led to some confusion.

It really comes down to what state or territory you reside in. According to statistics released Monday by the Institute of Public Affairs, most schools across Australia are to resume face-to-face teaching by June.

  • New South Wales - All schools will return to full-time face-to-face classes from May 25.
  • Victoria - A staggered return to classrooms will begin on May 26, with prep, grades one and two, and years 11 and 12 returning. Students in years three to 10 will return on June 9.
  • Queensland - From May 11 kindergarten, prep and years 1, 11 and 12 return. Remaining students planned to return from May 25.
  • Western Australia - Face-to-face teaching in place for all students, but attendance is optional until May 18.
  • South Australia - Schools reopened and students encouraged to attend.
  • Tasmania - Home-learning still in place, but schools open for parents who are unable to supervise their children.
  • Northern Territory - Returned to classrooms on April 20.
  • ACT - Plan to return during term 2. Primary school children, and year 7 and 12 students will return first.
Catherine Pearson contributed to this report.