By: Urmika Balaji, Contributing Writer
Edited by: Fauzia Haque, Editor; Eve Nevelos, Editor in Chief
Let’s be honest— it’s been a while since we’ve actually been to school. In the past year, “school” was just a couple feet from our beds; it featured the internet, a bowl of chips, exam cheat-sheets, real and fake network issues; and, of course, a stressed student. Even for those of us that spent a small part of the year in hybrid learning or playing sports, it was still not quite the same. Crowded hallways, not being able to find a lunch table, and necessary social interaction, are just a few of the many aspects of in-person school that have been very minimal or completely absent from our lives in the past year. However, with vaccinations increasing and COVID-19 cases decreasing among the vaccinated, society is slowly starting to revert to normal, meaning that many of us will be returning back to school, in-person and full capacity, for the 2021-22 school year. That being said, school will not be exactly the same as it was pre-pandemic or during the pandemic. It will be a new environment, with factors from both the pre-pandemic and pandemic that we will need to get used to. Whether you have been craving or detesting the idea of going back to school, this new environment will be a challenge for everyone, and maintaining physical and mental health will be important. This article aims to bring awareness to the challenges of physical and mental health as we return to school, as well as how we can cope with them.
First, it is important to address that COVID-19 has not quite disappeared. The Delta (B.1.617.2.) Variant, considered the most contagious of all variants, has spread to over 100 countries (Katella) (Hadad). Particularly in the United States, it is evident that the most vulnerable populations are located in states with lower vaccination rates, which may be applicable to other regions and countries with similar conditions. However, CDC recommends that children return to school full time and in-person this fall, with mask requirements and proper prevention strategies in place, regardless of vaccination status. Assuming that these safety measures are enforced at your school, here are some tips for maintaining your optimal physical health at school.
COVID-19 & General Health Recommendations:
1. Get Vaccinated!
This is the most effective way in preventing yourself from COVID-19 in a public place like school. Unvaccinated people are most at risk for the Delta variant, so if you are eligible and have access, protect yourself to the maximum! The vaccine should be available at your local pharmacy for ages 12 and up, free of charge, regardless of immigration and health insurance status (CDC). Schedule an appointment or find a time where your vaccine provider accepts walk-ins. The vaccination you choose might require two doses, 3 weeks or 4 weeks apart respectively (CDC). In any case, you will only be considered fully vaccinated after two weeks, so plan to be as close to fully vaccinated when you start school.
2. Follow your school’s safety guidelines as strictly as possible.
Considering that a few thousand people spend over six hours of the day in one place simultaneously, your school should be pretty strict about mask and hygiene requirements. Make sure you stay masked as often as possible, so that you protect yourself and others. This applies even if you are vaccinated, because you could be carrying the virus while exhibiting no symptoms, presenting a likelihood of spreading it to unvaccinated individuals. In addition to masking, follow distancing requirements when applicable, and stay home if you feel sick to ensure yours and others safety (CDC).
3. Don’t share food, wash your hands, and use hand-sanitizer.
These are important in any public place, regardless of COVID-19, but pay attention to these especially while your city is recovering from the pandemic. Something as simple as not washing your hands before lunch or sharing a sandwich with your friend could turn into a problem. Especially at such an uncertain time, don’t take these risks, because they could be responsible for the decisions of your friends, family, and school.
4. Drink water, get enough sleep, and eat your meals!
Whether you are going to school in-person or online, these are necessary to stay focused at school. Especially if you are returning to school after a long hiatus spent in the confinements of your room, expect yourself to be more fatigued throughout the day from commuting, socializing, and walking to and from classes. Make sure you have enough energy for your day by keeping yourself hydrated, well-replenished, and well-rested.
Source: NBC2 News
Now that we have discussed the well-known physical health recommendations, let’s get into the more overlooked aspect of the pandemic’s future: mental health. The pandemic has seen a large spike in mental health issues, especially among the youth. According to Mental Health America, the number of youth experiencing at least one major depressive episode in 2020 increased by 99,000 from that of 2019. This was likely due to a series of city, state, and nationwide-level lockdowns, where it became apparent that many were experiencing similar, and rather unfortunate conditions in isolation. This encouraged unity among many, and brought attention to the struggles of life during a pandemic and the global yearn for normalcy. However, as the pandemic ends, it is essential that we do not ignore mental health on the account that we are returning to “normalcy.” Just as mental health worsened as we transitioned into the pandemic, it could very well face similar effects as we transition back. As we return to school, you may notice yourself feeling unfamiliar or fatigued from being in crowds, commuting, and meeting new people, assignments, and tests.
During the pandemic, many of us missed out on the social experiences of school, such as talking to friends, and making conversation with people. A large part of this was online, such as with the chat, camera, mute features, and social media, which gave students more flexibility over what and how they wanted to communicate, beneficial for those who would usually avoid confrontation in-person. Additionally, according to a survey conducted by WebMD, detailing how parents felt about the pandemic’s effects on their teen’s mental health, over half of the parents reported that their children utilized social media and texting over in-person interaction. With communication being predominantly online in the past year, as many start returning to school, some of us might feel left out from friend groups that had been meeting up in the past year, while we were staying home (Jax Therapy Network). This is completely normal, especially if you have not been in contact with your friends, and it should resolve over time as you spend more time with them.
With back-to-school, whether online or in-person, comes new teachers, assignments, and tests that we will need to get used to. Think of adjusting to a new class like creating a new habit. Depending on the kind of class, difficulty level, classmates, teacher(s), and a multitude of other factors, a class can take anywhere from a couple days to an entire semester to adjust to. With the time to adjust, you will still have a lot of work, which may cause things to feel overwhelming. Especially if you're having trouble in classes with more difficult material, make sure you are utilizing all of your resources: communicating with your teachers and classmates and studying class materials. In summary, if you are not aware of how your class works and you are not attempting to utilize what it provides, you will not be able to adjust to it.
Unlike the pandemic, in-person school will require commuting time to be considered. This means that you might not be able to wake up five minutes before class, or finish an assignment exactly two minutes before the deadline. For example, when school starts in-person, you may need to set aside time to get ready and commute to school and other activities. Because of this, you may need to get up earlier, and therefore sleep earlier. When you might have been able to procrastinate until 10 p.m. before starting your homework during the pandemic, you may not have as much leeway as you return in-person, so it is best to be proactive in finding ways to avoid wasting time. According to the Harvard Business Review, based on research by Tim Pychyl, the best ways to overcome procrastination are to identify the triggers of procrastinating, shorten focus intervals, make an initial attempt at your work, understand the consequences of procrastination, and disconnect from distractions.
While this article is addressed to those who are returning to school, it is important to address those who will not be. Whether it is due to the state of your city/state/country or pre-existing health conditions, the pandemic is still in effect everywhere, but in different stages for some than it is for others. For those of us who will be returning to school, these tips are meant to advise on the physical and mental challenges to come and how to deal with them. For those of us who will be continuing online for the next year, regard this article with hope, and continue to follow the general tips that apply to any form of school. Wherever you are in the world, remember that normalcy is on its way, even if it seems far away.