Anxiety over the new school year grows during pandemic

Health experts advise routine and structure for back-to-school


When starting a new school year in a new grade with a new teacher, it is common to face first-day jitters. However, experts say back-to-school anxiety in 2021 is elevated due to continuously changing rules and procedures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Kristin Orlowski, a psychologist with UCHealth, said elementary students and teenagers thrive on structure and consistency. In 2020, consistency and structure became unstable with online schooling, mandates, and procedures creating confusion and stress as federal, state and local health officials grappled with how to keep children safe.

The bottom line, Orlowski said, is that online schooling is not an effective alternative to in-person learning. Students fell behind in academics and social development, she said. When students are out of sorts, stressed and depressed, Orlowski said studies show they do not retain or learn new things as well.

Like other hospitals along the Front Range, UCHealth facilities have seen an uptick in cases involving young people dealing with depression, substance abuse and mental illness. UCHealth has locations in Parker, Highlands Ranch, Aurora, Lone Tree and Denver,

As school is slated to start in Douglas, Arapahoe, Adams and Jefferson counties this month, the debate over mask mandates is revving up. Orlowski said as school administrators debate whether to require masks, parent anger and frustrations are spilling over, and students are hearing it.

Dr. Anat Geva, clinician supervisor for HealthOne Behavioral Health and Wellness Center, said the biggest problem for students in the pandemic is the “unknown.”

“The other part of that is the unknown can change quickly during a pandemic,” she said. “You might have a student already stressed about a new teacher and new classroom, but there is also concern classes will get canceled or mask restrictions are suddenly put in place again. Really, everything can flip 180 degrees from one day to the next. The unknown is always a problem.”

Geva said this has led students to be more apathetic and avoid issues altogether. Adults and children alike are ignoring news and updates because they figure the situation will just change tomorrow, she said.

According to studies provided by HealthOne, which serves patients in Centennial, Aurora and Ken Caryl, self-harm claims among teenagers in 2020 increased by more than 300%.

Earlier this summer, Children’s Hospital Colorado (CHC) declared a crisis in treating young people for mental health conditions. Experts and doctors say the primary reason for the increase in cases is the continued disruption to their daily lives the pandemic has caused. CHC treats young patients in Highlands Ranch, Wheat Ridge, Parker, Aurora, Denver, Centennial, Broomfield and Colorado Springs.

As medical professionals remained concerned with how young people are handling the added stressors posed by COVID-19 at the start of a new school year, Orlowski and Geva agree that parents and students can take steps to decrease and limit anxiety.

As the first days of school draw closer, steps to prepare for a new school year during a pandemic include:

Get back to set bedtimes — A regular bedtime helps establish routine and help students get enough sleep.

Stay on schedule — From dinner to athletics and activities, Orlowski said a set schedule and routine can help students adjust to a new school year faster.

Stop the stressful chatter — Constant discussion about the pandemic, rules and frustrations with mandates can cause anxiety in children. Just talking to students about what they need to do without opinions and anger can help alleviate anxiety.

Teach students to be accepting — Orlowski said schools, parents and society are already teaching students to be accepting of everyone to avoid bullying. With the pandemic, acceptance also means masks. If a student attends a school where masks are optional, students not wearing masks should accept those choosing to wear them.

Be positive — Geva said it is important that parents and adults work to make the best of any situation. Being as positive as possible can make a difference, she said. Students should be assured they are not alone, Geva stressed. Others are going through the same thing.

Always communicate — Geva said talking frankly with children can help a lot. Answering their questions, speaking honestly and asking them how they are feeling can keep the lines of communication open.

Get help if needed — Orlowski said it is important to get acquainted with help outside the home. If a student is struggling with anxiety due to more serious issues, it may be time to seek help from school counselors or a qualified clinician. Geva said HealthOne has behavioral health centers throughout the region, and if symptoms of depression and anxiety continue to increase, parents should consider professional help outside the home and school.

Watch for signs of anxiety in children — Indications of anxiety include appearing more clingy than normal, being restless and fidgety, complaining of stomachaches or headaches, changes in eating and sleeping habits, expressing negative thoughts and worries, getting upset quickly, becoming more emotional than usual, struggling to concentrate, picking at their skin and being too compliant in trying to please without addressing their own anxiety.


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