Parenting in a pandemic: Back to school, but not back to normal

Class is back in session and students at South Milwaukee High School like senior Larry Vann are happy to be back.

"I like being around people. I work better that way," Vann said. 

Vann said being back in class provides him the structure that he needs. 

"I like talking to the teachers without having a test on me. My thing is easier for me because when I was in virtue, I had to I slept, I overslept, and I did some other stuff," Vann said.

It is not just the seniors who like the return to in-person learning.

"I like it. I like having math in person because it's a lot better than having it online and just sitting in bed and don't really pay attention as much," said freshman Anna Menzia.

Masks are a strict requirement for all students. Lizzy Monte doesn’t mind much. She’s just happy to be back, especially for her senior year.

"It’s still different obviously than normal but it’s definitely better than last year," Monte said "I feel like I have a hard time because I have three AP classes, so I would definitely be really hard if I went back to school virtual."

FOX6 News asked junior Aiden Rodenkirk if he was worried about having to go back home and learn. His response was…

"No, because I think we have a really good school here. And we all know, like, if you're sick, don't come to school," Rodenkirk said.

George Cleveland has been a guidance counselor at South Milwaukee for 30 years and said the emotional toll the long-lasting pandemic has had on students is like nothing he has ever seen.

"Schools are based on academic socialization, maturation, and it's hard to do those last two virtually. It's almost impossible," Cleveland said. "And so they're still adjusting to being teenagers, growing, getting to know people how to interact with people they don't know, making new friends and a high school environment. Um, and as the year passes and progresses, I think that'll get easier and easier. It helps to have high school football because that's what we're used to doing for variety."

Meghan Sothan is a parent of a 4th and 6th grader. She has seen those challenges first hand.

"I think during the lockdown, the isolation, it becomes too much. The kids need that social interaction," Sothan said.

But does the interaction come with too high of a cost? New data shows children accounted for nearly a third of all COVID-19 cases within the last few weeks – with 243,000 new cases reported.

Those numbers have some parents like Jenny Reinhold on edge.

"We're feeling very comfortable with the 8th grader because she's vaccinated and she wears her mask. But we are very concerned about the 1st grader. You know, masks are on and off throughout the day," Reinhold said.

Reinhold said she tries to model good behavior at home. She knows how critical it is for kids to feel comfortable. 

Cleveland said parents should pay close attention to the conversation they’re having around their kids at home. 

"If parents are anxious, try not to spread that anxiety to your kids because they pick up on that. Kids are very, very knowledgeable when it comes to picking up anxiety. The guardians and their parents, they follow their example. They follow their leads," Cleveland said.

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Clinical psychologist Amanda Heins agrees. She works with children at Rogers Behavioral Health – and said some of the anxiety felt by parents about COVID and the new Delta variants can ultimately trickle down to their kids. So it’s essential to keep the lines of communication open.

"I would honestly start a conversation with, you know, 'Hey, how's it going? I know, you know, this COVID thing's been going on for a little while now, Where are you at right now?'" Heins said.

Heins also advises parents to watch for behavioral changes in their children or teenagers. 

"If I was a really social kid before and I was involved in activities and seeing my friends, and maybe now I'm no longer participating in those or dramatically decreasing my participation, you know, if I was very social and now I'm more in my bedroom often than not and or reluctant to leave, I'm running more and more late to school each day due to, you know, routines getting extended or my sleep patterns may be different. Those would be some signs that would definitely warrant checking in to see, you know, hey, how are you doing?" Heins said. "I'm noticing, you know, these changes and just wanted to see what's going on and just really approach it as a conversation, you know, just out of curiosity. So when we approach things out of curiosity, that usually promotes sharing versus, well, this is what I'm seeing. And so it must be this making those assumptions before we, you know, have the information. Sharing observations with your child of, hey, I'm noticing, you know, this behavior, help me understand, usually will get you more information versus I see that you're, you know, you're on your technology all the time. Maybe they're connecting with grandma and we don't even know."

As for talking with your elementary school-aged kids? The doctor said talking through play might be more productive.

"Get out your action figures or LEGOs or whatever your child's really interested in. And, you know, you can use the characters to have a more fruitful conversation," Heins said.

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Perspective is a tool communications teacher Jon Lareau has brought into the classroom. He stresses to students the pandemic is not just a problem in South Milwaukee.

"It's, I think, it does help you feel like, all right, this isn't my journey and my journey alone, but rather more of a universal experience," Lareau said. "I mean if you know that what you're going through with anything here is what people are going throughout there."

A common theme among educators? Don’t underestimate the flexibility, adaptability, or optimism of our children.

"We've adjusted and learned that honestly, we can embrace technology and still maximize trying to make the best of the learning environment that we have at present," Lareau said. "Our number one goal is to keep them safe and that's what we have to do."

School counselors at South Milwaukee have created a program to suit both the emotional and physical changes students may be going through in the pandemic. 

"We do go through a lot of coping strategies with kids and talk about skills that are very unique to each student," Lareau said. "You know, taking deep breaths and counting to 10 might work for one student and not work for another student. We do have an area in our office that if they want to come down and they don't want to talk to somebody, but they just need a quiet place to be. We have an area that we have set aside for kids."

"We have some coloring books there and some fidget toys. And it's just a quiet space for kids to be if they need to remove themselves from the larger population for a little bit of time," said Molly Gallegos, high school social worker. "And once they get themselves back together, then they go back to class. So we do a lot of talking about strategies with kids because they're very individual."

It seems to be working.

"The old rule is, and particularly in counseling is if you follow the science and you follow the policies and procedures, eventually things work out for the best," Cleveland said.


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