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A recent poll shows that families are heading into the school year worried about the impending impact of COVID-19 on students. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images
  • A new study found parents felt a mix of worries — some were more traditional back-to-school jitters, while others were far more anxiety-inducing, given the current COVID-19 climate.
  • At least 62 percent of parents polled said they would feel safer with higher school vaccination rates.
  • Classes are restarting for students across the nation as coronavirus delta variant cases are still surging.

With school just around the corner and coronavirus delta variant cases on the rise, families’ back-to-school jitters are looking slightly different this year.

After more than a year of pandemic disruptions, a poll published today shows that families are heading into the school year worried about the impending impact of COVID-19 on students.

The poll was conducted by the University of Michigan Health’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. It’s an annual National Poll on Children’s Health. The results were based on responses from 1,669 parents with at least one child between the ages of 7 and 18.

What the study found was a mix of worries — some were more traditional back-to-school jitters, while others were far more anxiety-inducing, given the current COVID-19 climate.

“The Mott Poll on children’s health is a recurring one. It’s a different report each month. As we were thinking about different topics to explore, we noticed that in the last month or two, families were turning the corner to think about what the coming school year would be like,” said Sarah Clark, MPH, and the co-director for the Mott Poll.

“We talked about how people’s experiences, both kids and parents, from the last school year might influence the way they were thinking about this upcoming school year,” she said.

According to the poll, more than half of the parents rated the 2020-2021 academic school year as worse than the previous year: 25 percent on academic performance, 36 percent on connections with teachers, 40 percent for the impact on relationships with other students, and 32 percent for general attitude.

However, there was a small portion — about one-third — of parents who actually reported that last school year was better for their child.

“Some kids are able to do virtual learning more independently,” said Clark. “In some cases, kids didn’t miss much school at all and some were able to maintain relationships, which says something about good teachers.”

However, a quarter of parents reported that their children are concerned about having to do virtual school again, which is becoming more and more of a possibility as the delta variant has already caused some schools to roll back to virtual.

Children under 12 are still not eligible for the vaccine, and now nearly all the serious COVID-19 cases in the United States are among people who are unvaccinated.

“Going into this upcoming school year, there are a lot of kids that are looking forward to it, but they have some pretty important worries that reflect their experiences from last year,” said Clark.

The major concern is the return to virtual learning, according to the poll results.

Parents and kids thought there might be a return to normalcy, but it is looking more and more like that idea is slipping away.

“I, too, as a parent, am concerned about the interruption in school for a second straight year,” said Dr. Eric Cioe-Peña, director of global health at Northwell Health in New York.

“I’m worried that municipalities won’t mandate vaccinations among eligible students and staff and that because of that, outbreaks at school will force remote schooling,” Cioe-Peña said.

In addition to returning to virtual learning, kids are also worried about not feeling comfortable around larger groups of children. After more than a year practicing physical distancing, the return to certain social scenes is enough to drive anyone’s anxiety up.

At least 22 percent of children fear being behind on academics, and another 22 percent are concerned about getting along with friends.

“When you think about it, it’s not that surprising,” said Clark. “We were all working hard to stay separated. And then when we started coming back, it was shocking at how many people were around. While adults could ease back into life, school is abrupt for kids.”

However, after spending a difficult year largely with virtual schooling, more parents report feeling confident that they will be able to help their kids navigate another challenging year.

At least 51 percent of people polled feel that they will know how to help their children be successful with school.

Another 47 percent of people are confident they can help their kids bounce back when things don’t go well, and 44 percent feel strongly that they will be able to help their children deal with peer problems.

Kids are feeling optimistic, too. Forty-one percent of parents said their children are more enthusiastic about the upcoming year, 16 percent are less enthusiastic, and 43 feel about the same.

Increasing the vaccination rate is the number one way to help protect kids who are too young to be vaccinated, and to help keep school shutdowns and rollbacks at a minimum.

At least 62 percent of parents polled said they would feel safer with higher school vaccination rates.

“I think remote schooling, especially in younger grades, is detrimental to learning,” said Cioe-Peña.

Cioe-Peña’s standing “by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics in expecting a full return to in-person schooling, with masking and vaccines as a strategy to protect our students, teachers, and staff.”

The second way parents can help would be to listen to the concerns of their kids and try to have plans in place in order to make them feel more comfortable.

“Parents need to put aside their own COVID-19 views for a second and be willing to hear their kids,” said Clark. “Let them express anything they may be worried about. Let’s turn this into a problem-solving thing.”

That may involve finding out what the school is or is not doing and figuring out how we are going to make kids feel comfortable. Some kids may be OK with the bus, while others may not.

“Make a phone call to the school to understand the options. Let’s see what is under our control. Make mask requirements fun by picking out fun-looking masks. Do whatever you have to do to help your kids feel like they are able to take a little ownership of their school environment,” said Clark.

The other thing to keep in mind is that playing catch-up is not going to be quick. It’s not something that can be tackled in a day or even a month.

“Listen to your kids’ concerns. Offer to look into a tutor if it is a possibility. Turn that anxiety into a problem-solving exercise and figure out what we can do,” Clark said.