Distance learning took the place of going to school buildings, and activities were either canceled or modified during the COVID-19 pandemic. The start of the 2021-22 school year will consist of a lot of transitions for the school day and activities as students return to some of that pre-pandemic life.
One of the first things to acknowledge is that the experience of coming out of a pandemic is new to everyone. Realize there’s a new normal.
“I think it would be normal to expect everyone to have some level of struggle,” said Dr. Sarah Jerstad, a child psychologist at Children’s Minnesota.
Not only is there the transition of going back to routine, but a lot of people will have experienced some type of grief during the pandemic. Whether it’s losing a loved one without being able to hold a funeral, missing out on milestone events like graduations or simply missing being with people in-person. Needing time to process and readjust is normal, said Cynthia Fashaw, director of children’s programs and multicultural outreach with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“We’ve been through a lot, and everyone experiences it differently,” Fashaw said. “Anxiety can make you feel isolated and alone. Know that there are a good chunk of folks around you that are going through the same thing.”
Students building more time into their days will be helpful in the transition. Students should be mindful of trying to get enough sleep, then make sure they’re getting up in the morning with time to get ready and eat breakfast, according to Jerstad.
“So some of it’s going to be logistics like that,” Jerstad said.
Beyond that, expectations might be different for different people compared to what they were pre-pandemic, according to Jerstad. While parents might encourage their kids to get back into all their activities and jobs along with school, and friends might want to socialize together in-person, jumping back into everything could “feel a bit overwhelming since they’ve been so used to being at home and having a schedule at home,” Jerstad said.
While getting back into routines can be a good thing, there are struggles to be aware of for students. Some struggle with feeling isolated. There could be anxiety with returning to the socialization that comes with attending school, like who to sit with at the lunch table or wondering if people will remember them and talk with them, according to Jerstad.
In terms of academics, some schools handled student performance differently during the pandemic to help students cope with the change to distance learning. Study habits from the past may also need a readjustment.
“So some students might be transitioning back to a more rigorous academic schedule and have some anxiety and stress about that or feel some pressure about how to handle that rigorous academic schedule again,” Jerstad said.
While the transition might be an adjustment for everyone, there are things students can do who feel they are particularly struggling. It’s important that students make sure they feel comfortable talking to someone, whether it be their parents, friends or someone at their school like a teacher or school psychologist.
Self-care is probably the top thing students can do to help themselves readjust in healthy ways, Fashaw said. Get enough sleep, reconnect with friends. It’s also important to pay attention to your peers and reach out to them if they’re struggling.
“We can handle this as a community,” Fashaw said. “I think that’s the only way we’re going to handle this, as a united community, that we look out for ourselves and each other.”
In regard to time, jumping back into school, work and activities all at once without scheduling any downtime in between can be tough. Scheduling downtime gives students a chance to recharge, Jerstad said. She encourages some non-screen time as part of that. Screens became such a huge part of learning and connecting during the pandemic, but taking a break sometimes is helpful, too.
While connecting with friends online isn't a bad thing, it’s not the only way to connect. Students got used to socializing almost entirely online during the pandemic, but part of their time can now be spent meeting up with friends in-person, perhaps getting coffee or hanging out after school. It’s important to have a balance of that in-person interaction.
One way to reconnect with friends is through activities that might have been on hold for more than a year, things like sports, music or clubs.
For those students who do struggle and feel they need some support, there are resources out there from a mental health standpoint, including therapists, online resources and text lines for crisis or mental health support. As the pandemic showed, talking with a therapist doesn’t have to mean going into an office. Mental health professionals can meet with people virtually.
“The thing about mental illness is the earlier you catch it, the better the outcome,” Fashaw said. “The same way with stress.”
Mental health struggles in response to the pandemic are normal and expected, Jerstad said, so students should not feel ashamed about reaching out for help.