How Can We Handle the Uncertainty about Whether and How Schools Will Re-Open?


Right now, we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and it will continue and change for a long time. While everyone across the globe is affected, it’s hitting people differently in different places. Countries are experiencing it at different times, and within the United States, states are being hit at different times. The crisis affects individuals very differently, too; people’s fears and challenges vary dramatically. Wherever we are, we’re all so grateful for the healthcare workers and all the essential workers who are doing such important work, so courageously, during this time.

On a recent live “Ask Me Anything” call with participants of my online video course The Happiness Project Experience, someone asked a question that’s on the minds of so many of us these days: “How can we handle all the uncertainty about whether and how schools will open in the fall?”

For those of us with school-age children, it’s a huge happiness challenge. And of course, even people who don’t have children in school are affected by this question, because it has such tremendous consequences for everyone in a community. I feel this uncertainty myself, about what my own daughters will be doing when school starts again.

People face so many different uncertainties! They vary depending on where you live; how old your children are; whether you yourself are a teacher or work at a school; what your home situation is; what your work situation is; how your children get to school; how much support you have as a family; your family’s medical condition; how your children fare in different circumstances…the list goes on and on. So it’s not as if everyone is facing the same set of uncertainties—we all have our own unique collection.

Here are strategies that I’m trying to practice myself:

1. Don’t waste my time and energy trying to lock in plans too early. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet observes, “The readiness is all,” and in law, lawyers talk about whether an issue is “ripe,” that is, whether the facts are advanced enough to be ready for consideration. At least for me, right now, where certain key issues just aren’t known or knowable, I’m trying not to spend too much time on planning. It’s not efficient.

But here’s the problem. Sometimes, we must plan, we need to worry. In that case….

2. Make a chart of possible futures. In episode 272 of the Happier podcast, Dr. Elizabeth Schwarz suggested making a flow chart. Even when it feels as if there are fifty possible school re-opening plans, there are really just a handful. Making a flow chart of the alternatives is also a way to give ourselves greater clarity on what issues might come up, and boosts a feeling of control. (For more insights from Dr. Elizabeth Schwarz, check out her site Tough Questions 4 Tough Times for more great answers and solutions for parents.)

3. Schedule time to worry. In episode 56, we talked about this counter-intuitive approach. Worrying has some positive aspects: it gets us to focus, it nudges us to plan, it helps us to think about different possible futures. But worry can also drain and overwhelm us. By scheduling time to worry, we free up all our other time to be worry-free, yet we’re still making time for the positive aspects of worry.

Note: don’t schedule time to worry around bedtime! Do it at a time when you feel calm and energetic. And keep pen and paper near by, because it’s often helpful to…

4. Make a list. For me, making a list usually makes problems or uncertainties feel more manageable. Whether it’s questions to investigate, items to buy, people to call, a timeline, or even just a list of open questions, it helps me to see words on a page.

5. Identify the problem. Instead of ruminating about all positive and negative outcomes and scenarios, I try to focus on what exactly might be the issues we’d face. Once a problem is identified, a solution seems clearer (even if I don’t have that answer).

6. Look for a trusted authority. Especially for Questioners, who might feel overwhelmed by their urge to research and by their analysis-paralysis, it can be helpful to find a trusted authority. I have a few expert sources and individuals whose judgment and knowledge I really trust. I pay a lot of attention to what they say, and I’m very guided by their views.

7. Stay focused on my own family’s values. It’s easy to get distracted and overwhelmed by what other people are planning and doing. As a citizen, I want to know what’s happening across the country, of course, but in my personal life, I’m trying to stay focused on what’s right for us. And I remind myself that I don’t have the full story about other people, so they may be making decisions for reasons that aren’t visible to me.

8. Don’t vent my frustration to my children. They have their own worries. I’m trying to acknowledge the reality of their feelings (see #9), and at the same time, I’m trying not to fuel the flames by talking about my own worries.

9. Acknowledge the reality of other people’s feelings. When the people around me do want to vent, I try to listen and acknowledge what they’re saying, instead of denying or re-directing it. I don’t deny feelings like anger, irritation, disappointment, or reluctance; instead, I try to articulate the other person’s point of view. Experts say that denying bad feelings intensifies them; acknowledging bad feelings allows good feelings to return. “You’ve been on Zoom for thirty minutes, but you feel like it has been three hours.” “You thought you could explore the city this summer, instead you feel so cooped up.” “You were looking forward to ____ in the fall, and now it’s not going to happen.”

It’s perhaps counter-intuitive, but it’s true: we help people feel happier by acknowledging that they’re not feeling happy.

10. Reflect on what I’m grateful for. There’s so much loss and suffering right now. It’s hard even to grasp it. I take time every day to practice gratitude. Gratitude helps me maintain perspective, see silver linings, and show compassion for others. On the Chart of Possible Futures (see #2), it can help to make a list of any positive aspects to a particular future. For instance, my sister Elizabeth lives in Los Angeles, so a silver lining for her family is skipping the early-morning commute to school. More sleep, less frustration. It doesn’t outweigh the fact of not going to school, of course, but it’s something.

Have you found any helpful solutions for managing the uncertainty around school re-openings?

To check out all resources related to coping with COVID-19, click here.



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