Chicago mother Brit Cooper Robinson knew the start of a new school year would be extra hard on her two young boys. She homeschooled her kindergartener and second grader last year after deciding that remote learning wasn’t working.
She was right. The past three weeks, she has gone from consoling her sobbing kindergartener in the mornings, to helping her oldest with breathing exercises and cheering them on as they walk into Peirce Elementary, a Chicago public school on the North Side.
Although it’s getting better, she also sees that her kids aren’t the only ones having a hard time.
“Even in our own drop-off lines, you’ll notice that in a row of 30 kids, 19 of them are crying or holding on to a leg of a parent,” Cooper Robinson said.
In an ordinary year, going to school for the first time is a big milestone that can be stressful. But it seems that the pandemic has made it much harder for the youngest learners after most Chicago Public Schools students learned remotely all last year. Some teachers say they are seeing more tears and anxiety than in pre-pandemic times. And experts are seeing the issue and offering tips to help make this difficult transition.
Students are adjusting to new and strange faces with masks on all day. They have to let go of parents and loved ones because they aren’t allowed inside school buildings.
“They have been at home for much longer than typical when I get kids coming into kindergarten,” said Michelle Grinberg, a kindergarten teacher at Lozano School in Wicker Park. “It’s definitely been emotional for some of my kids.”
Then there’s the additional anxiety of the ongoing pandemic. Already, about 5,500 students and staff have been identified as close contact of someone who had COVID-19 at school, according to CPS. But many parents and teachers think those numbers are actually higher. They also say the mitigation strategies put in place by the district aren’t effective enough.
Some parents say returning to school feels like one big experiment. Many have more questions than answers regarding the school-based COVID-19 protocols.
“We are not sure if this is really safe, but we don’t think the kids can be indoors another year,” said Leone Jose Bicchieri, the parent of a preschooler. “I think that if you would ask a lot of us, ‘Are you glad your kid is back?’ You’ll say ‘Yes.’ And if the follow-up question is ‘Do you think it is safe?’ You’ll say ‘no.’ ”
Managing school routines
Although homeschooling was hard, Cooper Robinson and her husband felt strongly about pulling their kids out of CPS during remote instruction. August, their 5-year-old, wasn’t the only preschooler who stopped coming to school. Last year, 57% of the total CPS enrollment drop was in pre-K and kindergarten.
But Cooper Robinson knows key development happens during in-person school. During their time at home, August, who is happy and outgoing, missed out on some simple but important lessons.
“He doesn’t even remember the little bit of preschool that he got,” Cooper Robinson said. “So even the concepts of waiting in line, raising his hand, asking to go to the bathroom, having to eat only when he is allowed to eat, all of that is totally new for him.”
Kindergarten teachers are spending a lot of time helping kids get used to these new school routines.
Although many kids are adjusting to their school routine quickly and smoothly, Grinberg is being extra patient and nurturing those who need extra support. She’s been filling the classroom with things they like, including a counting game with their favorite characters and a jar they can fill with memories of fun times.
“I tell a lot of parents the one thing you don’t realize we teach a lot in kindergarten is the social-emotional aspect,” she said.
To keep parents at ease she keeps them informed. Grinberg has a classroom website with pictures and updates. She also schedules meetings with her parents online to answer any questions they have.
“I want to make a hypothetical window for the parents to know everything they need to know in order to feel safe about where their kid is going to school,” she said.
Grinberg is all in, but the responsibility of keeping her students safe during the pandemic is taking a toll.
“Mentally I’ve reached my capacity,” she said. “Am I doing the best job I can do to keep the rest of my kids safe?”
Ways to help anxious kids
Experts caution that little ones pick up the stress parents and teachers are feeling.
“Everyone is just a bit more anxious and our kids can feel that and they are showing us that at the door,” said Sara Anderson, associate director for the Center of Children and Families at the Erikson Institute, an early child development institution.
For example, Bicchieri’s 4-year-old son’s anxiety has been sky high in the mornings before school. Bicchieri said he feels a pit in his stomach knowing what will happen when he drops Leonsito off at his school, Orozco Academy in Pilsen. As they approach school, the boy often starts slowing down and then Bicchieri has to pull him.
“One time he grabbed the gate and he wouldn’t let go,” Bicchieri said. “He started screaming. I felt so bad for him I had to forcefully take him to the teachers. They literally had to grab him.”
Anderson has some tips for struggling families.
She suggests limiting a child’s exposure to news and information about COVID-19 and sharing it in a way that isn’t frightening. For example, instead of telling them the latest COVID-19 numbers, parents could just say masks are important because they help keep germs away, Anderson said.
Reassuring children they are safe, that parents are thinking about them during the day, and establishing a goodbye ritual could also help, she said.
“For some kids that could be a secret handshake,” Anderson said.
Cooper Robinson has a list of techniques, including calming breathing exercises, she uses with her boys to help them cope with their fears of school. Her second grader has been getting up early in the mornings worried about school.
“We try to teach our kids little mantras that they can say to themselves,” she said. “Like ‘I am safe. This is a safe place.’ We remind them that they can talk to their teachers and ask for help.”
Bicchieri and his wife, Claudia Galeno say they are spending more time with Leonsito, their 4-year-old, when he is done with school.
“I stopped doing chores around the house to play more with him and walk around the park with him,” Galeno said in Spanish.
Things are slowly getting better for some students. Still, the pandemic can suddenly change and reverse progress. That’s what happened with Leonsito. Just when he was starting to enjoy school and making new friends, he came down with a fever. He is now back at home with mom and dad.