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Coping With Back To School Anxiety As COVID Cases Rise

Kimberley Renk. Photo: UCF
Kimberley Renk. Photo: UCF

Students are heading back to school for another year- but this time they will have to navigate vaccinations, masks, and the recent surge of COVID-19 cases. Kimberley Renk, an associate professor of psychology at UCF, joins Intersection to discuss the impact of the pandemic and the return to in-person classes on students, families, and teachers.

Renk says that she feels the struggle that families have been going through with their children’s education. 

“I know everybody has really struggled to make sense of how things have been going. And I think watching families transition into the pandemic, and now trying to transition out of the pandemic, although with some new uncertainty as of late, I think it's been really difficult for our families.”

Each student is experiencing the pandemic at different stages of their life. Renk says that there are some similarities and unique differences in how various age groups are coping with the present situation. 

“Certainly one of the things that has been on my mind quite a lot are the changes in psychological symptoms that I've noticed, as children and adolescents have tried to adjust to the stressors of living in the way that we have. And now thinking about going back to school, and there being uncertainty again, about what's going to happen with this new variant of the coronavirus and what that's going to mean for what education is going to look like.”

Renk says she is seeing more anxiety and depressive symptoms among students.

“Strangely enough, I'm feeling like the start of this school year is a little reminiscent of last school year, where there were lots of questions about how schools were going to try to mitigate some of the impact of COVID-19. Parents are having questions about masking again, because there's some uncertainty about whether or not masks should be required.”

Renk advises parents to talk with their kids about routines and what school will be like in the fall. 

She says the long-term effects of the pandemic on students is unclear but we can observe a lot right now, particularly with social isolation. 

“Teachers are really going to have to think about those social and emotional pieces that kids may have missed out on last year, because they were online, or they were doing things differently, and not having direct social interaction with peers. So there may be a need to have some better or more facilitation of those social interactions, of those peer relationships in the school environment, so that everybody can settle in to renegotiating how those social interactions are supposed to go.”

Teachers of all grade levels learned to shift their lesson plans to account for the pandemic and Renk says they should be recognized as heroes for the work that they have done. She advocates for more support for the teachers, as they have been teaching on the frontlines, even when schools were shut down. 

“I think supports across all age teachers is just required. They are doing some of the most important work in our society, and for them to not receive the support that they needed to handle things like hybrid teaching, you know, that's just not okay.”

Juggling new COVID-19 information and new ways of learning can be difficult for students and their families, but Renk says that we should continue to open the lines of communication about what’s happening- and understand that what we’re facing is not easy. 

“We have to give each other and ourselves grace. I mean, this has been an adjustment for everybody, as we've learned to adapt to this new environment and these new circumstances, and you know, being patient. Everybody is doing the best that they can.”