It’s been more than two years since schools in the metro area closed for what was supposed to be two weeks. Fast forward to now and think about all we’ve experienced. Parents, students and teachers have dealt with no school, virtual school and hybrid school, and the stresses that come with each model – gaps in learning and a lack of socialization being main concerns.

Then, there were health concerns – What if you or someone in your class has COVID? How long do you stay home if someone in your house has COVID?

Just as things started to be settling and feeling “normal,” the terrible tragedy at an elementary school in Texas took place and, only weeks ago, another mass shooting at a July 4th parade, add a different type of anxiety to our lives.

So, how can you help your kids (and yourself) have a successful school year? Here are some key areas to focus on for the new school year:

Manage your own anxieties and fears.

“We all know that there is a heightened level of fear and anxiety in our world today, with very good reason,” says Jill Lewis, a Certified Clinical Psychotherapist based in Brookhaven. “Having said that, if we are constantly putting our fears and concerns on our children, they absorb that energy and stay in their own fear, which is unhelpful.”

She recommends using the following strategies:

  • Discuss health and safety options once or twice, but not daily or weekly, and do so with very little expression.
  • Have open dialogue at home about feelings in general and create a space for your children to share any worries or concerns.
  • Devote time for self-care for you. When you recognize you are too preoccupied with your own anxieties, find ways to take care of yourself such as dinner with friends, a massage, a walk, a bath, etc.
  • Talk to other adults about your concerns rather than your kids.

Be aware of learning gaps.

Because of the inconsistency of learning formats adopted during the pandemic, academic growth has not followed traditional patterns. Even students who had seen normal or above average success in school have been adversely affected by virtual learning. “My son was a second grader when the pandemic started and was performing above grade level,” says DeKalb County mom Nancy Chaffin. “Midway through third grade, I realized he was falling behind.”

Chaffin isn’t alone. According to a study from Georgia State University that concentrated on three major systems in metro Atlanta, students who were in elementary school when the pandemic hit have fared worse than older students. The report also shows that recovery is happening, but unevenly with stronger strides being seen in reading than math. To help students catch up on mastery of concepts and, at the middle school level, allow students to preview some of the content for the next year, systems like Fulton County Schools saw a large increase in summer school students. In fact, spokesperson Anne Boatright shared that Fulton County Schools served 11,000 students in-person and 4,000 virtually in summer school this year.

Metro Atlanta school systems are relying on federal funding to increase the number of teachers that are in each school and additional technology tools to offer support to students who are still struggling to maintain learning at grade level. “I appreciate what the schools are doing to support students, but I don’t want the pandemic to negatively impact my son’s self esteem around his intelligence,” says Chaffin. “I found a tutor who meets with my son every other week to review concepts and help him feel excited about learning again. Now, we are both looking forward to him starting fifth grade in a few weeks.”

Follow health and safety guidelines.

Staying in school helps reduce learning gaps and boosts social and emotional health for students. Part of being at school is staying physically healthy from COVID and other illnesses. It’s important to remember that basic CDC guidelines still need to be followed, including:

  • Regularly washing hands.
  • Staying home if exposed to COVID or experiencing symptoms of COVID, the flu, strep throat, etc.
  • Eating healthy foods and drinking lots of water.
  • Staying up to date with vaccinations.

In addition to updating health policies, many schools in the metro area boosted their campus safety policies and systems over the summer, including additional teacher training during the pre-planning period. It’s important to remember that these systems – background checks for visitors, waiting to be buzzed into the school when picking up early, cameras on buses – are in place to keep students and teachers safe. Boatwright shares that all Fulton County schools are equipped with a visitor management system called “Raptor,” which requires visitors to register in the building at the time of arrival. Their information is checked against state/national sex offender databases as well as local school police databases.

Get involved.

For decades the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education has reported that parent involvement in education is crucial. Their research shows that “no matter their income or  background, students with involved parents are more likely to have higher grades and test scores, attend school regularly, have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school.”

“You’d think once students are in fifth grade, they think that having their parent come to the classroom is embarrassing, but that’s not the case at all,” says Cobb County mom Amy Studin. “I went in last spring when we were allowed back into the school to help with field day and my daughter’s face lit up when she saw me!” Teachers always need help with making copies, and most metro area schools have Parent-Teacher groups that you can be part of that help raise money, plan events and show appreciation for teachers. “You don’t have to be the room parent or be in charge of something to show your child that you’re involved at their school and care about their learning,” says Studin.

-Tali Benjamin

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