Schools in Alberta will open their doors to students again next week, but experts and educators are keeping an eye on mental health concerns as students return to the classroom.
When children return to classes it will be important for parents to address any concerns their kids may have, without minimizing those worries, says University of Alberta child psychology professor Christina Rinaldi. Instead Rinaldi recommended keeping students fully informed about everything their school is doing, and what they can do themselves, to prevent COVID-19 spread.
"We want to rush in sometimes to say everything will be OK, and nobody's going to get sick. But we can't promise those kinds of things," said Rinaldi who was interviewed on CBC Radio Active on Wednesday.
"And it also prevents kids from dealing with or acknowledging [COVID-19] because it closes the conversation like there's nothing to worry about so we don't have to discuss it."
How those conversations should go with students differs depending on their age, Rinaldi said.
For all students, building a predictable routine and focusing on the student's successes and what's going well for them will be helpful, Rinaldi said.
But she specified that with younger grades, it's more important to identify and label emotions to help them process what they're experiencing. Meanwhile, parents can talk to older students about concrete examples from their school day and friend group, and use more active problem solving.
At the same time, there are some positives for kids to return to routine, and also to socialize more with their friends.
"Part of that is reassuring that school continues and their identity as a student or as a friend [continues]," Rinaldi said.
Students may have to cope with the reality of a classmate getting sick, or other direct connections to COVID-19 this fall. Rinaldi said parents should be grounded and realistic that people could get sick, but also that some children may already be aware of this and dealing with this as a possibility this year.
It's also important for parents to look after themselves, Rinaldi said, to ensure they're not transmitting any feelings of nervousness or anxiety onto their children. Finding other parents to talk about their experiences with and know they're not alone is helpful, as well as getting into a healthy routine.
"Parents need to as best they can take care of themselves," Rinaldi said.
"People are taking time to unwind or whether we're talking about good sleep or exercise or eating well or being in touch with and understanding where their feelings of concern or anxiety or worry are coming from."
The importance of building predictable structure and routines for students was echoed by Marlene Hanson, director of diversity education and comprehensive school health, with Edmonton Public Schools.
Hanson said she expects varied responses to the new school year with some students excited to see friends and some feeling uncertain or anxious. But a collaborative working group between Edmonton and Calgary's public and Catholic school boards, with Alberta Health Services and some University of Calgary psychologists, have created resources to support re-entry, Hanson said.
Staff will get information about student wellness they can share with classes, as well as lessons for the first week teachers can use to refocus students that focus on the difference between positive and toxic stress. They plan to offer ways students can cope with stress and build hope.
"Our focus is really on normalizing the re-entry as much as possible by focusing on universal classroom strategies," Hanson said.
Hanson added she hopes parents will reach out to schools if they're facing any problems with either in-person or online learning to start the school year.
Around 70 per cent of enrolled students at Edmonton Public Schools will return to in-person classes, or close to 64,000. The remaining roughly 26,000 students will opt for online learning.
In-class learning for Edmonton Catholic Schools begins on Wednesday, with the Edmonton Public School year beginning on Thursday.