As the date looms near, the anxiety surrounding sending my two kids back to school as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on is palpable. For many parents, there are so many unknowns regarding the 2021-2022 school year and it's utterly overwhelming, especially considering that many of us at least hoped the situation would have been greatly improved by this point. And for a while, it looked like it would be. But with the highly contagious Delta variant continuing to attack the US with fury as we approach the start of the school year, things are looking scary, to say the least.
On the one hand, we do know a lot more today about the virus and have developed safety protocols that for the most part, work to prevent the spread of the virus or at least minimize the risk of contracting it. But we also know that our young children — those under age 12 — are now some of the most at-risk since we don't yet have a vaccine that's approved for them. Also, most schools are planning for all students to go back full-time and are not at all offering a virtual option to start the school year. In my mind, that means that things like social distancing, monitoring students wearing their masks correctly, and sanitizing their hands regularly will be all the more difficult.
The stress may be even greater for Latina moms considering that COVID has impacted Latinxs disproportionately compared to our non-Latinx counterparts. In fact, as of March 2021, it was believed that Latinxs are 1.7 times more likely to get COVID than non-Latinxs, 4.1 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID. No wonder we're freaking out! Although I'm not among them, many Latinx people in America are essential and frontline workers and don't get to work from home or work alternate schedules that allow them to stay home with their children, so there's also the added stress of having no other option than to send their kids back to school in person full-time even where virtual and hybrid options are actually being offered.
"Essential workers deal with the anxiety of possible exposure every time they go to work. This causes stress. And then their options in regards to their children's school is limited. For most, returning to in-person school is the only choice. So now, these folks are dealing with the stress of possible exposure and their children's possible exposure," Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Stephanie Villasenor whose husband is also a teacher explains to me. And while it helps to know I'm not alone in feeling anxious over this situation, it also reminds me that my own situation could be far worse.
Last year, I chose to homeschool my kids. My son was in third grade and my daughter was still a preschooler and even though I had recently taken on a full-time workload, I've been a work-from-home freelancer since my son was an infant. It was a huge task to balance work and homeschooling but at the time I felt that with all of the potential back and forth between in-person school, virtual schooling, and hybrid schedules, as well as the safety concerns I had for my young children, it was the best choice for my family. That said, homeschooling isn't for us. Now that my son is older and the academic material is growing significantly more challenging, I don't feel equipped for it. I also feel that both of my children need a bit of separation from each other as well as from me, in order to continue to grow and develop well socially and emotionally. Plus, I'd like for my daughter to experience a normal kindergarten year as much as possible. So back in May, I registered them both for public school. Right now, it looks like they will both be attending school full-time, in-person, and wearing masks, but however that may change, I'm sticking with my decision.
That doesn't mean though that my fears have ebbed. First and foremost, I'm of course, nervous that my kids will catch COVID and there's that tiny niggling thought that one of them could end up severely ill. But I'm also anxious about the possibility that they may come into close contact with someone who tests positive and that even if they don't get sick, we'll all have to quarantine, or worse, we'll all get sick. We'll be back at square one with me trying to facilitate virtual learning and them unable to go to sports or otherwise socialize. I'm worried that they'll end up at home anyway and I will once again struggle to manage my career while trying to balance meeting all of their academic and emotional needs. I'm worried it will impact our income, leading to even bigger problems. Villasenor reminds me how so many other mothers have even more limited options.
"Parents and caregivers are worried about their children's possible exposure to [COVID-19], and this fear is absolutely valid. But what can you do if that is your only choice in order to work? Some parents/caregivers have very limited choices, and this has certainly contributed to their level of stress," Villasenor says, highlighting the seemingly impossible struggle so many parents have had to face since the start of the pandemic. It's a struggle that's contributed to nearly two million women leaving the workforce since the pandemic began, and one that will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on our society as a whole.
Even though I fully realize that my trepidation about sending my kids back to school is normal and even common, as a Latina, it's still ingrained in me to just suck it up and pretend I'm fine, like I'm handling it all in stride. I have to do it for my kids too — put on a brave face and act like I'm super-confident in my decision. I have to pretend that I'm not worried about them wearing masks all day or concerned about how close their desks will be to other students or alternately whether they'll miss out on formative social experiences like recess or lunch in the cafeteria for the second year in a row. It feels like I'm staving off a constant mental battle, which is something we Latinas often do silently. Villasenor explains to me that it's the stigma that still very much exists in our communities that keeps many of us suffering in silence.
"The correlation between BIPOC communities and low socio-economic status plays a significant role in mental health disparities. With less information, access to resources, and appropriate care, mental health issues can be misdiagnosed and exacerbated. The stigma of mental health in the Latinx community does also relate to the lack of care," Villasenor says. "There is a misconception that mental health is a sign of weakness and a lack of faith. Yet, mental health is something that all people experience and is nothing to be ashamed of. Although there has been a great deal of progress in this area, we still face a long road to the complete eradication of mental health stigma in the Latinx community."
At the moment, I have to remind myself that it's okay to be anxious about COVID and sending my kids back to school while still using what I know to set myself and my children up for success. Villasenor suggests for parents and caregivers to check in with their children before school begins and develop a routine of daily check-ins. "Routine is helpful for any person struggling with mental health," Villasenor says. "Observing your child's behaviors is also important. Some signs of emotional distress are: change in appetite/sleep, disinterest in activities they used to enjoy, excessive worrying about little things, etc. When we can recognize what is in our control, we can figure out what coping skills work for us." She notes that having things like a daily checklist of safety items including masks, hand sanitizers, etc. that kids pack each day as well as having a daily open dialogue with our children about their experiences at school, can help comfort and empower both children and parents.
Each of us can only do what we believe is the next right thing, and even though I'm totally anxious about another COVID school year, I think I'm making the right choice to send my kids back in person. We will try to control what we can and prioritize self-care and emotional well-being as best as possible, and I suppose if it gets too overwhelming, there's always therapy!