‘I feel scared’: Winnipeg Grade 4 student among many experiencing stress about return to school

By | September 5, 2020

Her school supplies are picked out and her mask and sanitizer are ready to go, but nine-year-old Sarah Hulst says she doesn’t feel good about going back to school.

“I feel scared, nervous and terrified,” she said Thursday, less than a week before she’s due to start Grade 4 at Bertrun E. Glavin School in Winnipeg’s River East Transcona School Division.

On Tuesday, almost all Manitoba students from kindergarten to Grade 8 will return to classrooms full-time to begin their school year, while high school students will have at least two days per six-day cycle of in-person instruction.

Merri-Beth Hulst, Sarah’s mom, says in her family, the return to classroom learning has also brought a wave of stress for her, her husband and their children.

Merri-Beth has asthma and runs a home daycare. She has family members who are elderly and immunocompromised, and could be at greater risk from COVID-19 if they’re exposed, she said.

Merri-Beth Hulst, second from right, with her children Sylvanna, left, Sarah, and Dustin, right. All three kids will head back to class on Tuesday. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

It was only last week she decided to send her kids back to school in-person instead of home-schooling, she said. She’s one of many Manitoba parents calling on government to make remote learning available to any family who wants it.

“My children did succeed with their online learning,” when Manitoba schools shifted to remote learning in the spring, she said. “My question for the government is … why do we not have that choice?”

She and her kids have already practised hand sanitizing, handwashing and the right way to put on a mask. Each child will bring two masks to school each day — one for morning and one for afternoon — as well as separate bags for clean and dirty face coverings.

For Sarah, the stress has caused difficulty sleeping and anxiety about making her loved ones ill, including her great-grandmother, who just turned 99.

“I’m afraid that if [at] school there is a lot of germs [and] I bring those germs home, then I will get other people sick,” Sarah said. “And then my parents will need to stop going to work and then we’ll lose money until we get better.”

Range of reactions from kids: psychologist

The Hulst family are far from the only Manitobans feeling anxiety about the return to school. On Wednesday, Manitoba Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said he knows many families are facing new challenges, including mental health challenges, as they prepare for the new year.

“We almost know for sure there’s going to be impact on students from a mental health perspective. I don’t know that we quite understand the depth of that or what that actually results in,” Goertzen said.

“There’s going to be a lot of watching, observing and then changing, I think, as we go along with some of the [student support] programs.”

Dr. Jo Ann Unger, a Winnipeg-based clinical psychologist and clinical director at Kidthink Children’s Mental Health Centre, said the mental health impact of the pandemic on children varies widely from child to child and family to family.

For parents, that means walking a fine line of recognizing and validating your child’s concerns, if they have any, without adding your own onto their plates.

“There are kids who are struggling, and some kids are in the middle and some kids are kind of looking forward to going to school.… There’s a whole spectrum,” Unger said.

“As parents, it’s really helpful if we can sit with where our kids actually are. But sometimes we can put our own anxieties and worries on them.”

Seek help, focus on the moment

Just like different children will have different levels of anxiety, the source of stress varies from child to child, too, Unger said. For kids who rely on connections with their friends to help deal with depression, for example, not being able to see people during lockdown could be its own concern.

“If we struggle … with depression, social isolation absolutely is not good for depression,” she said.

Regardless of the source of stress, Unger said if you’re a student and you’re struggling, it’s important to reach out and talk to someone about it.

“Adults may be able to give you some information that you didn’t have,” she said.

If you start feeling overwhelmed during the school day, you can seek out support from adults in the school, she said. Another technique is trying to focus on what you’re doing in that moment.

“[Ask yourself], ‘OK, what am I doing right now? I’m focusing on the teacher, I’m focusing on my friends.’ Using our breath to stay calm is a really great resource,” she said.

“Maybe stepping out of the classroom for a minute to take those breaths, and really kind of settle our nervous system, focusing our feet on the floor, how our body feels sitting in a chair or standing.”

Kidthink — a  non-profit organization — has a number of webinars available online free for all to access, she said, and will host another on Sept. 16 for students and parents.

“We all have mental health,” Unger said. “We all have psychology, we all have emotions, we all have thoughts, and so children have those, too.”

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