StephenVance 270The return to school in 2020 is like nothing students, parents, or teachers have seen before, and understandably anxiety levels are running high for many.

After half a year away, our kids are returning to school amid significant public debate about whether they should be returning at all. That fact alone is enough to heighten tensions for students who are heading into a new school year that will require face masks and social distancing, an unpleasant adjustment for kids of any age.

As the new school year begins, we are expecting much from our children, not that high expectations are a bad thing, but this year our expectations extend well beyond earning good grades and staying out of trouble. This year we are asking our kids to navigate a new world that we have seen plenty of adults struggle with in recent months.

For children of all ages, but perhaps more significantly for younger children, social distancing doesn't come easy. Children often experience the world and the people in it up close and personal, and the current need to maintain distance from others will be a challenge for students and teachers alike. Likewise, facial coverings will no doubt be a source of frustration for both teachers and students.

My younger son is heading into his final year of high school, a building he hasn't been inside since March Break began.

While he is happy to be returning to school and to see his friends, he isn't as excited as he has been in prior years. There will be no football to start the school year, and no basketball over the winter, though he is holding out hope for rugby season in the spring.

In talking to my son over the Labour Day weekend, he was cautiously optimistic though not exactly thrilled with heading back under the current conditions. He has expressed many times over the past six months that he wanted to get back to school with his friends and teachers, and now that it is happening, he has some reservations.

It's very strange. It's gonna be interesting to see how everything is, and how well it goes,” he told me in a text over the weekend. “It's not the ideal way to spend my last year of high school, but at least I'm not doing it from home.”

Fortunately, at nearly 18 years old he can view this whole ordeal through nearly adult eyes and make some sense of the situation. The same can't be said for younger students for whom this pandemic is a world of confusion.

That said, my son did note the mixed messaging that students are facing. We are asking our students to head back into schools where hundreds of students will be crammed into stuffy buildings, yet the social distancing protocols at his part-time job would never allow such close quarters during this time of provincially mandated social distancing.

With such a strange school year getting underway, I think we will all need to show some patience and understanding with our school-aged kids in the weeks and months to come. Kids feel anxiety just as adults do, and I think most of us would agree that the past six months of this pandemic have resulted in heightened anxiety for many, so I think we should expect the same with our kids as they wade into this school year.

As I was talking to my son on the weekend, I thought back to the start of my own final year of high school. There was much excitement, it was the home stretch and the end zone was in sight. There was hope for the future, and much anticipation of what was to come as I dipped my toe into the world of adulthood. I didn't feel that same hope and optimism from my son in talking about his final year; instead the tone was cautious and uncertain with a healthy dose of determination to simply get through this year. As my son said, it's not exactly an ideal way to spend his final year in high school, but I think he can take some comfort in knowing that he isn't alone – there are thousands of students across the province in the very same boat. Not that such comfort will make the experience any more enjoyable, but as I have told my kids many times over the years in many different situations, it could be worse.

I don't envy the students or the teachers. The weeks ahead will be challenging, and frustrating, but we humans seem to always find a way through difficult times, and I am certain that over time all will adjust to this new normal. What concerns me most is that our kids get back to learning, and I am hoping that in spite of all that is taking place, learning is indeed what will happen in our schools this year.

To all of the students returning to school, and to all of the teachers charged with both teaching our kids and keeping them safe, I wish all the very best. It's not ideal, but we'll all get through.

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