Ardith Zucker and her daughter Zaria, 7, in Longfellow Park, just across from Longfellow School. Zaria is looking forward to heading back to school in person. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

When 7-year-old Zaria walked into a local Walgreens last month, she didn’t know what to make of what she saw. The soon-to-be second grader – who nearly spent her first two years of school in remote learning – was still getting used to going out with her parents and seeing people piled into the stores. 

By that point, Illinois had just entered into Phase 5 of its COVID-19 reopening plans. Businesses could still require people to wear masks, but the safety restrictions surrounding the pandemic – some of which limited the amount of people able to step inside a business, venue, school or office – were being lifted. And this sense of normalcy was slowly returning. 

Ardith Zucker, Zaria’s mother, said she realized on that trip to Walgreens that she and her partner had some explaining to do. As parents, they found themselves reassuring Zaria that it was OK to be in the store. They still have to be masked, but things are different now, they said to her. It’s safer, especially with COVID-19 vaccines out, they said. But Zaria “freaked out a bit,” Ardith said.

“We’ll be in here for a few minutes,” said Ardith, of Oak Park, recalling the quick conversation. Though days have passed since that trip, Ardith said she remembered the look on her daughter’s face, seeing her take a deep breath right before stepping in, as if she was “processing it all, you know?”  

Ardith’s story is an example of an experience many families navigating the pandemic have shared. With most schools in Illinois fully reopening by mid-August, parents, caregivers and educators are left wondering how the pandemic has impacted the state’s youngest learners. 

In April, researchers from the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago released the results of multiple surveys, polling over 1,500 parents across the city’s 77 neighborhoods. In one of the surveys, 23% of parents with children between the ages of 2 and 11 years old revealed they had “experienced more tantrums and acting out” compared to before the pandemic.  

Some parents also said their younger children displayed more “clinginess” and had more sleep disturbances, including nightmares. Others reported their children experienced headaches, stomach pains or had trouble getting along with other children. 

Brittany Yelnick, a first-year social worker at River Forest School District 90, said she, like many other faculty and staff, was concerned about how the stay-at-home mandate in March 2020 and then remote learning affected students. Yelnick often kept in touch with students virtually and paid close attention to their well-being, emotions and schoolwork. 

But once District 90 went into hybrid learning, Yelnick said she started noticing some students were anxious to come back to the building. She also knew other students thrived learning from home, and so she and her colleagues, alongside school teachers, workshopped ways to help children become comfortable with being in-person. 

“The predictability of what school used to be for them before the pandemic – and then it turned into something very known – is traumatic in itself,” said Yelnick, who splits her time as a social worker between Willard and Lincoln elementary schools. 

Yelnick said she and staff began incorporating mindfulness practices to tend to students’ social and emotional needs. Teachers also started in-person classes with more check-ins to see how students were feeling or even just asking them how their weekends were, she said.  

“Teachers were excellent at being the first line of defense for students and giving them that social-emotional support,” she said. 

‘A lot of firsts’  

When the pandemic first hit last March, Zaria was only 5 and halfway through kindergarten at Longfellow Elementary School. 

“She didn’t really know what school was,” said Ardith, adding most children around that age are just starting to go to school and taking those small steps toward building independence. Those ages – between 5 and 6 years old – are crucial because that’s when children are learning how to ask what they need, going on playdates or even attending summer camp, she said. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children at the age of 5 should be able to remember their names and address, know everyday items such as food or money or visit a neighbor with adult supervision. Because of the pandemic, Ardith said she thinks her daughter is “a little more reliant on us than she would have been if all this hadn’t happened.” 

While safety measures around COVID-19 have loosened up in recent months, Ardith shared that her family also had to make a decision on just how comfortable they were with going out, visiting someone else’s home or sending Zaria back to school for hybrid learning. 

It was tough, Ardith said. Between seeing whether teachers would get the vaccine and grieving over a loved one who died from COVID-19, Ardith sought to keep Zaria in remote learning a little longer, easing her back into the classroom slowly.  

Yelnick said that once families had the option of sending their children back to school for hybrid learning, she and her colleagues continued to put their students’ well-being first. They wanted students to be comfortable whether they were inside the classroom or at home. 

Zaria had a hard time keeping up with the schedules that rolled out from hybrid learning, Ardith admitted. There was a “lot more back and forth, and there were a lot more meltdowns in our house because of that,” she said. 

When District 97 offered full-time on-site learning by the spring, Ardith said Zaria was excited to go and see her friends in person and wasn’t nervous. 

“It’s a big change from being home for a year to all of a sudden going to school every day,” she said, adding Zaria had an “amazing teacher” who fostered a safe, welcoming environment. 

Like Yelnick, Carrie Kamm, senior director of equity at Oak Park Elementary School District 97, spoke of the steps D97 took to confront students’ social-emotional needs. The district deployed its social workers for telehealth appointments and expanded its partnership with DePaul University to bring in a care coordinator. 

Both D90 and D97 also launched their own social-emotional learning committees composed of educators, healthcare professionals, parents and community members. In these spaces, they continued to talk about trauma and try to build out a longer list of resources for families to access. These efforts continue to remain a work in progress, as the pandemic continues and evolves.

For Kamm, she also kept her eye on teachers, faculty and administrators. Kamm, who works directly with school employees, wanted them to feel supported, as they moved through the challenges of the pandemic.

“When you’re in education, certainly, we center our students, but you can’t center the students and not have a real edict of care for the adults who make the system work,” she said. 

With summer in full swing, Kamm said she’s still trying to wrap her head around the last year or so and can’t seem to rest quite yet. 

“If you equate it to like breathing in and holding your breath, I don’t feel like I’ve exhaled yet,” Kamm said.  

In mid-June, Zaria turned 7 years old. Ardith and her partner threw a party at a nearby park for Zaria and invited her classmates to celebrate. There was even a magician set to perform. While everyone still remained masked, Ardith recalled feeling a sense of comfort in hearing her daughter laugh and play alongside other children. 

“They were just running up to each other when they arrived and screaming their names – and just thrilled,” Ardith said. “It was such a big deal to be in person and be able to play on the playground and things like that. There are a lot of firsts now that are happening.” 

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