In a few short days, we will welcome back your children to campus, following an awfully long, very strange hiatus. While the school has done a great job planning and preparing for students’ physical health and safety, we also know it is important to consider their emotional health and well-being.
The biggest emotion I’m hearing from our students is their overwhelming excitement as they think about reuniting with their friends and teachers as well as returning to some sense of normalcy. While this seems to be the first emotion to surface, it doesn’t mean that students won’t have other mixed emotions as well. Some of the children will experience anxiety about the virus itself, worry about catching it and then transmitting it to others in the home environment. Others might be concerned about wearing a mask all day or controlling their natural impulses to hug and/or horse around with their friends. Other students and parents may decide they are comfortable with the online option as school gets underway. Younger students, and those who loved the online learning experience last spring, may be reticent about leaving the comfort, love, safety and security of their home.
In dealing with a variety of these emotions, a good place to start is looking at your own emotions and sharing those with others in the St. Anne’s community. Remember, all of us have a distinct social/emotional brain configuration, so it is possible that your child’s feelings may be completely different from yours. Next, be open to any emotion your child might express and simply validate their point of view. It’s especially important to look for some surreal experiences you all may have when coming back to campus. My first one was felt when I walked back into the main building last week, expecting to give a warm greeting to Mrs. Buckley – something I have done tens of thousands of times over the past quarter century. As I stepped into the building, I was confronted by a huge piece of plexiglass covering the front opening above her countertop. While I’ve grown accustomed to seeing plexiglass hanging up in stores, it somehow caught me by surprise to see it at St. Anne’s. It is a good idea to plan ahead and talk to your children about the fact that the surroundings might look or feel different from what they remember. Then, reassure them that they will get used to it, just like Mr. Knippenberg will get used to seeing the plexiglass.
In addition to these surreal experiences, being back on campus could bring up emotions from last spring: field trips, activities or classes that were missed and/or feelings about online schooling. While I had the opportunity to discuss these emotions with many of the attendees of my Zoom classes last spring, they may resurface as they see a teacher from last year or pass their old classrooms. Again, you want to validate your child’s feelings of loss while also helping them focus on new opportunities that await them. Older students might also choose to discuss this summer’s racial protests and the socio-economic inequalities in our country, which the virus exposed.
Being back to school this year will also bring up feelings related to the smaller class sizes, the daily schedule, mask wearing and grief about the loss of before- and after-school activities. Again, validation is your best approach. In addition, the faculty all have been trained on how to lead small-group discussions with their cohorts. These discussions present a great opportunity for students to express their emotions in a safe, familiar environment. In addition, I – along with the rest of the counseling team – will be available to visit with your children as well as with you (in-person or online). Additional information about how to schedule a visit will be sent home as school gets under way. Please take comfort in knowing the St. Anne’s staff is here to provide support for your children as well as you.
We all need to deal with the uncertainty of the future. You and your children are going to be asking “what if” questions. Some of these you may not be able to answer, and you simply need to say: “I don’t know. We will just have to trust and see how it goes.” In other instances, you want to assure them the school has taken many things into consideration as they established reopening plans and that contingency plans have also been made in the event the virus comes to a cohort or we need to return to SADL. We can only take this one day at a time.
Finally, I’ve been encouraging all parents to show graciousness and express gratitude to St. Anne’s administrative team, SAFE planning committee members, Board members, the building and grounds crew and all faculty. In normal times, a pivot like this would have taken two to three years. They have worked tirelessly and accomplished this shift in just three months. What they have done is inconceivable. While every family may not be completely satisfied with the plans and strategy, you can rest assured in knowing that the St. Anne’s team has integrated feedback from everyone in their structure and design. Regardless of what the future holds, your child will “get what they need.”
Craig A. Knippenberg, LCSW, M.Div.
St. Anne’s Consultant