Students across the U.S. are starting another school year under a cloud of uncertainty as the delta strain of the coronavirus rips through the country, threatening to disrupt plans for a second consecutive academic year.
The pandemic’s unpredictability has sparked high anxiety among children and teachers alike as they attempt to return to in-person school for the first time since March 2020, with lingering fears that COVID-19 could jeopardize educational routines again.
The back-to-school season has left children and families with mixed feelings. Many are excited to return to in-person class after months of virtual learning, while some adults are keeping a wary eye on rising pediatric cases and hospitalizations.
Already, schools in 19 states have sent at least 90,000 students to quarantine, while others have shut down, just days and weeks into the year.
“Routines are so important for children, and we are all living in a state where routines are impossible to predict,” said Sheila Desai, the director of educational practice at the National Association of School Psychologists. “So of course with uncertainty comes anxiety.”
Students typically experience anxiety when starting a new school year as they adjust to new teachers, classmates and workloads, experts said. But this year, COVID-19 piles more stressors on students as so much of the future remains up in the air.
This summer, Boston Children’s Hospital has seen more children report to the hospital with symptoms of anxiety than previous pre-pandemic back-to-school seasons, Patricia Ibeziako, the associate chief of clinical services in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Boston Children’s Hospital, said.
“We’re just seeing much higher volumes of patients reporting anxiety in the context of pandemic-related impacts,” she said.
Anxiety levels among children and adolescents had already been climbing and increasing the demand on the limited number of pediatric mental health professionals before the pandemic struck the country.
With the additional stress from COVID-19, school psychologists are expected to be “stretched even more” than in previous years, Desai said, so the group is pushing for the school psychologists shortage to be addressed.
“We know that the need for us is greater than it ever has been, and it’s always been great,” she said. “So I hope there’s an opportunity for schools and state-level agencies to invest in school psychologists and mental and behavioral supports in schools and making that a priority.”
The Biden administration has ramped up efforts to fund mental health, including with the American Rescue Plan, part of which is being spent on bolstering mental health resources. Biden’s budget also designated another $1 billion to increase the amount of counselors, school psychologists, nurses and social workers in schools, according to an Education Department spokesperson.
The highly transmissible delta variant has also escalated worries among some students, parents and teachers as infections among children rise during the back-to-school season. Many students remain unvaccinated and vulnerable to the strain, as those younger than 12 are ineligible to get the vaccine at this point.
The increased cases among children prompted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyWalensky says ‘now is the time’ to tackle gun violence: report CDC: Unvaccinated, unmasked teacher led to elementary school outbreak Overnight Health Care: Biden given inconclusive intel report on COVID-19 origin MORE to call on schools that are not following the agency’s guidance, including on masking, to “do the right thing.” She said the agency’s investigations found large outbreaks are “generally” occurring in these schools.
“I want to strongly appeal to those districts who have not implemented prevention strategies and encourage them to do the right thing to protect the children under their care,” Walensky said during a Friday briefing.
The CDC has urged all schools to reopen to in-person learning this fall, recommending masks for all those aged 2 and older in order to keep schools functioning in-person and from shutting down due to outbreaks.
Some Republican governors, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisTexas Gov. Greg Abbott loathes government mandates — unless he loves them The Memo: Will DeSantis’s star fall as Florida COVID numbers rise? Howard Dean calls DeSantis a ‘lunatic’ over handling of COVID-19 MORE, have banned mask mandates in schools but have faced defiance from school officials and a series of court battles.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called the “polarization and the politics” embedded in the COVID-19 discourse “terrible for kids,” since it causes more confusion over how to prevent viral spread.
“All of this anger and polarization is actually making the anxiety worse because people don’t know who to believe,” she said. “The disinformation and the cultural wars are becoming as big of a problem as COVID.”
Meanwhile, children’s hospitals are also being pushed to the limit with surges in admissions that some public health experts fear will grow with schools returning.
The Children’s Hospital Association requested Biden provide “immediate help” to pediatric hospitals in a Thursday letter, warning they might not have enough beds or staff to care for children if demand increases.
Although hospitalizations and deaths remain “uncommon” for children who have contracted delta variant, pediatric hospitalizations have increased with the delta strain and experts say another variant could emerge that may more severely affect children.
A total of 1,500 children are currently hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19, including 317 in Texas and 215 in Florida, according to federal data updated Friday afternoon.
Although anticipating what will happen with COVID-19 is difficult, experts say school leadership can help alleviate children’s worries with clear communication, transparency and the development of a sense of community.
Tamar Chansky, a psychologist in the Philadelphia area, addressing children’s emotional and mental health needs is “a key ingredient in their educational success this year.” She encouraged patience from schools instead of immediately rushing into trying to catch “emotionally taxed” students up academically.
“If emotionally they’re having experiences that they think no one knows about, and they’re feeling very alone, they’re not going to be able to learn that state,” she said.
Christine Crawford, the associate medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, noted that schools should release “concrete plans” for different scenarios that could occur to ease concerns.
“That way people feel better prepared and feel better able to anticipate any potential change,” she said.
She emphasized that schools need to prioritize children’s mental health as schools return.
“Mental health is part of overall good health,” she said. “You can’t have a conversation about the health and well-being of children, the health and well-being of students when it comes to COVID-19 without being mindful of the mental health effects of this pandemic as well.”