The first thing to recognize is that students will not be returning to the traditional school settings they are familiar with, which itself can be disorienting and distressing. After spending the past six months restricted to a small group of people, entering or reentering a school with perhaps hundreds of people in masks, plexiglass partitions and one-way signage is going to feel uncomfortable at best. Adults and children alike comment on watching movies and feeling viscerally nervous at seeing people in large crowds.
Additionally, asking elementary school children not to hug their friends or teachers, not to share crayons and not to socially interact is unnatural. Asking high school students not to participate in extracurricular activities and remain socially distant from their friends is going to deprive them of important components of adolescent development as well as a key outlet for the stresses of high school. One patient in my practice said to me, “Why would I send my kid to prison [i.e. school] to wear a mask for six hours, sit in isolation and only go to the bathroom on a schedule?”
Even explaining the need for the extreme measures to students could do damage. We’ve learned that after schools initiated active shooter drills to keep children physically safe, the drills had negative psychological consequences for some participants. How we explain such threats to children impacts their ability to feel safe in school, and in the larger world as well.