Photo via Shutterstock
Photo via Shutterstock

Feeling uncertain about the upcoming school year? We talked to Michigan’s child psychology experts on ways to get your whole family safely prepared to return to a classroom during the pandemic.

LANSING, MI — July is usually a time when Michigan children feel like summer should never end. It’s also when their parents begin to eagerly await the upcoming school year.

But that changes during a pandemic. Now Michigan families are juggling new work shifts, losses of incomes, changed routines, and fear of the virus. 

Wayne resident Donna Vang says that trying to decide the best path forward for her family has been nerve-wracking.

I can only imagine me being stressed out and then the kids going back to school having the same stress,” Vang told The ’Gander.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer just revealed a detailed plan for reopening Michigan’s K-12 schools in time for the fall term. This will be the first time Michigan’s children will return to school since they were closed in March in favor of remote learning to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

RELATED: Inside Gov. Whitmer’s Back-To-School Plan: 11 Ways Michigan Classrooms Will Look Different This Fall

Many Michigan families are experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety at the thought of returning to the classroom.

Child psychologist Andrea Rodgers says stress at this time is normal for both children and adults, but she warns of extreme behaviors.

“Children who had symptoms [of anxiety] before could see those symptoms exacerbated. Children who never had symptoms before may or may not [exhibit them] now.” She says changes to children’s sleeping patterns, eating habits, and mood can all be indicators that they are feeling overwhelmed.

Message boards on social media sites are filled with posts from nervous parents who are concerned about making the best decisions for their families. But the feelings are normal, according to Dr. La-Toya Gaines, a child and family psychologist in Southfield.

“As human beings we always want to maintain a certain level of control, and right now we don’t know what to expect,” Dr. Gaines said. 

Parents who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed are living examples of healthy — or unhealthy — coping mechanisms for their children, according to Rodgers. She recommends that adults learn to identify and counterbalance their stress factors in order to best help children who may be equally nervous about school this fall.

“The best thing we can do as parents is make sure we’re as healthy as possible, mentally and physically,” Rodgers said. “They’re [children] watching and learning from our coping mechanisms.”

For parents like Vang, this may feel like something that is easier said than done.

Vang’s husband works in the automotive industry but has had his hours reduced since the coronavirus outbreak began. As a result, Vang is seeking a second day job for herself while the couple cares for their two children, who are three and thirteen years old.

“It’s kind of hard, but luckily my husband works at night so we can work it out with me working during the day,” she said. “I just don’t know how I’m going to juggle all of this [in the fall], because that’s where all of our stress is coming from.”

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The Plan for Michigan Schools 

The MI Safe Start plan requires individual school districts to have safety plans in place for the upcoming school year and includes $256 million from the state to support those efforts, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told reporters in Lansing.

“Getting back to classroom learning and remaining in school buildings will require us to make changes to how school usually looks,” said Gov. Whitmer. “We must all continue to put safety first and leverage data and science and public health evidence to inform decisions that we make to serve each and every student in Michigan.”

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula are in Phase 5 of the reopening plan, while areas south of those regions are in Phase 4.

In Phase 4, students in sixth grade and up must wear a face mask throughout the school day, except for lunch or if they medically can’t wear one. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade must wear masks when outside the classroom and on school buses.

In Phase 5, students won’t be required to wear masks but will be recommended to do so. Schools would be strongly recommended to do health screenings and send students with COVID-19 symptoms back home.

Both phases would limit the number of spectators at sporting events or competitions.

School buildings would remain closed for regions in Phases 1-3, where confirmed cases of the virus are increasing and hospital capacity is taxed. Learning would be done virtually.

Michigan would have to be at Phase 6 of its reopening for in-person classroom instruction with minimum required safety protocols. 

Phase 6 of the state’s restart is referred to as post-pandemic, where community spread of the disease is not expected to return and there is sufficient community immunity and available treatment. All businesses would be reopened and social distancing would be relaxed under this phase.

RELATED: Republicans Still Want to Take Health Care Away From 20 Million Americans—in the Middle of a Pandemic

Family Tips for Reducing Stress

1. Exercise

Dr. Gaines recommends exercise as a first line of defense against overwhelming and stressful feelings. 

“That can be as simple as going for a walk every day,” she said. “It can be riding a bike, running or jumping rope. And it doesn’t cost you anything.” 

2. Stay in the Present

Anxiety lives in two places, Dr. Gaines said: in the future or in the past.

“In the future, we worry about the what-ifs, but in the past, we ruminate on what we should have said or could have done differently. Our anxiety rarely lives in the current space, so the more time you spend focusing on what is in this moment and what can I do about it in this moment, the less anxiety people tend to experience.”

3. Have fun!

Fun activities do more than take your mind off of stressful situations, it reverses effects of stress of the mind and body.

“In my family, sometimes we take a walk together, sometimes we sing karaoke,” Dr. Gaines said.

4. Seek help if you need it

“County health departments offer so many resources for Michigan families,” Rodgers told The ’Gander. “Call and explain the services you’re seeking to get a list of local resources.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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