Coping with sending children back to school in Central Illinois

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CENTRAL ILLINOIS, Ill. (WMBD) — After spending a year in and out of the classroom, students across Illinois will be heading back to in-person classes full-time, if families choose to do so.

With the pandemic still lingering on, health professionals suggest speaking with your child to prepare them for the upcoming school year.

The pressure on how to protect children from COVID-19 is ramping up again. It is the latest thing that has made paying attention to mental health needs for parents and students a must.

Katie Johnson, a UnityPoint Health qualified behavioral health professional, said parents having open communication with their children is helpful as they head back into the classroom.

“We’re seeing a lot of anxiety with kids going back that are in junior high, not knowing what to expect. You know, a lot of kids did e-learning last semester. What does that look like this year?” Johnson said.

Helping children with the return to school starts at home, Johnson said.

“If we’re hoping that our kids are going to be really excited to go back, we need to portray that in our actions, as well. You know, I’m super excited about you going back to school, how are you feeling? And leaving that as an open question,” she said.

Annalee Huntington has four children and three of them are currently within the Dunlap School District. While excited to send her children back to school, she doesn’t agree with the school board’s recent decision.

At a recent school board meeting, Huntington and numerous other parents spoke out against the district’s decision to make masks optional for staff and students.

“We’re upset, we’re angry, we’re frustrated, exasperated that they’re not willing to listen to the medical advice provided by the CDC and the Illinois Department of Public Health who are all in agreement that masks should be worn by everyone regardless of vaccination status,” Huntington said.

She said she’s going to draft a petition asking the district to implement a universal masking policy.

“I’ve heard cases of people who have sent their kids to school with pending COVID tests, only to find out they were positive. I personally can’t trust other people, I want my kids to be protected,” she said.

In Peoria County, a meeting is set for Monday with local superintendents and health leaders to discuss new CDC guidelines recommending masks for all students and staff to start the school year, regardless of vaccination status.

Peoria County Regional Superintendent Beth Crider said, for now, it’s up to local district leaders to decide.

“The key will be, is this going to be guidance or is this going to be a mandate? If it comes down as a mandate from the Illinois Department of Health and the Illinois Board of Education, then we’re going to have to make some changes,” Crider said.

All the new changes leave uncertainty lingering for parents and children and experts say it can certainly lead to some extra stress.

Johnson said there are some behaviors for parents to look out for.

“Difficulty in concentration is one of the main symptoms with anxiety, irritability, difficulty sleeping. If your kiddo is typically a really good sleeper and now you’re noticing that they’re not sleeping so well, that could be an indication that maybe they’re struggling a little bit about changes with school, and what it’s looking like,” Johnson said.

When at home, Johnson said parents can engage children in creative activities, such as drawing to help them better express their feelings.

“Just meeting them where they are and navigating as best as we can to help these kids have the most successful school year,” Johnson said.

Experts from the National Association of School Psychologists said it is important for educators and parents to stay calm, listen, and offer reassurance to children.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends demonstrating breathing exercises for calming nerves, establishing and maintaining a daily routine, monitoring screen time, and offer lots of love and affection.

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