I'm a Teen and I'm Terrified to Be Back in School in a Pandemic

Teens understand more of the risks of COVID-19 exposure than younger children, so their concerns around entering crowded hallways and classrooms are very real. In this week's 'Teen Talk," a high school freshman shares her concerns and an expert weighs in how parents can help alleviate them.

Illustration of teens at locker wearing masks
Photo: Illustration by Yeji Kim

The television show Fear Factor challenges contestants to face the things that scare them the most in order to win a cash prize. Similarly, the COVID-19 crisis has made many students face their fears of sickness, death, and isolation, but we don't get rewarded if we make it through an in-person back-to-school season with our health intact. Instead, we just get an additional source of stress added to our heavy workload and a bonus concern if canceled extracurricular activities will impact our college applications or scholarship opportunities.

Despite our anxieties, this experience can be an opportunity for parents and teens to have open, honest conversations about making smart decisions, following safety and health precautions, and navigating uncertainties.

Listen to Our Concerns

A Teen's Take: My school district recently announced that there would be no in-person schooling for the time being. But before that was official, I was concerned school administrators wouldn't effectively enforce social distancing, as seen at North Paulding High School in Georgia where photos of crowded school hallways went viral. At least nine students in that school tested positive for COVID-19 as an early result.

My parents and I have had many conversations about my health and safety in school since the pandemic hit. If my school does open for in-person classes before there is a vaccine available, my parents let me know that they are willing to talk to school administrators and advocate for the safety of me and my classmates if needed.

An Expert's Take: By now, you should have discussed the different options offered within your school system (in person, remote, hybrid) with your teen and made a selection that works best for your family. But it's important to understand that your school's plan might change as the semester continues. "It is helpful to go through how each of these options would work logistically, including the set-up at home vs. the set-up at school, as well as the health and safety precautions in place," says Meredith Bonacci, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York. "I always remind parents to ask their teen about their questions and concerns. As parents, we might not be able to answer all of their questions or ease all of their concerns, but the important thing is that your teen feels heard and feels validated. That way, they will continue to come to you as a safe person to discuss big issues."

Stick to a Routine

A Teen's Take: I knew from that start that this semester was going to be a bit chaotic as teachers and administrators figure out the best way to navigate it. To help it go smoothly, my family set up a routine that felt most like one for a normal school year, even though I wasn't going to physical classes. My parents and I also plan to have daily check-ins to discuss how I'm feeling since the pandemic has made things more emotionally taxing. That way we can adjust the routine and our schedule as needed.

An Expert's Take: "Establishing a regular routine is essential, especially during these challenging times," says Dr. Bonacci. "Wake up at the normal school time, regardless of whether you are in person or remote, go to sleep at the same time. Another helpful tool may include a family work/school calendar to keep everyone organized. Since many in-person extracurriculars have been changed or canceled this year, and socializing looks very different, brainstorm with your teen what extracurricular and social activities they would be interested in and comfortable with. Make sure that is part of the weekly schedule; social engagement is a key protective factor in adolescent mental health. And at the end of a long day, step away from your respective devices and come together for family time."

Help Teens Understand the Impact of Their Decisions

A Teen's Take: I know that mask mandates are important and if I don't comply, I may get sick, others may get sick, and my activities might get canceled all over again. While teens are more likely to understand the consequences of their actions a little more than younger kids, it's still important to have these conversations since it's easy for us to forget the bigger picture when we are upset with changes to our day to day normalcy.

An Expert's Take: "First, validate their feelings of frustration; this is not something we have ever had to do before, and it isn't easy making all of these changes to our daily functioning," says Dr. Bonacci. "Discuss the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing (discuss, don't lecture!). It may also be helpful to remind your teen about modes of transmission and how masks directly prevent transmission. And remember...set a good example by wearing your mask too."

Involve Teens in Family Decisions

A Teen's Take: Some families are still quarantining while others are socializing again. It would be easy for me to feel left out if my friends were hanging out and I couldn't participate. Social media posts of friends getting together can make isolation feel even more intense. But when I am part of my family's decision-making, it's easier for me to respect the rules since I understand the reasoning behind them. My family often discusses under what conditions we will venture out beyond school or work. What precautions should we take? How is our community responding to the virus? What one thing do we miss most about our lifestyle before the virus struck and how can we safely recreate that experience?

An Expert's Take: "When teens are involved in the rationale behind and developing of the family rules, they feel much more invested in following these rules and carrying out these expectations," says Dr. Bonacci. "Whether or not to have a strict rule, or to make an exception to that rule, can be a discussion. Things to consider in this family discussion may include: the pros and cons, the comfort level of each family member, when/why we need to be strict in certain situations and lenient in other situations."

The Bottom Line

Having my family validate my concerns was so helpful. At the start of quarantine, I called my grandfather and asked him about the polio epidemic of his youth. He told me he stayed home an entire summer, distancing himself from others. He encouraged me by saying this, too, shall pass. Though he admitted that he had never experienced anything quite like the COVID-19 pandemic, his message still applies: We will get through this. We will emerge stronger than before because, like Fear Factor, when we face our fears, we grow, change, and overcome. This is not just a pandemic message but a life lesson.

Leah Stewart is a 14-year-old freshman enrolled in the pre-IB program at her high school. She enjoys playing the guitar, writing, and playing tennis.

Read more Teen Talk columns here.

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