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Back to School – Finding Our Way Back to Normal

August 18, 2021

Summer is wrapping up, which means that my kids are focusing on the excitement of a new school year. As a parent though, there is always a cloud of uncertainty looming. Though the plan all summer has been to return to full-time in-person learning, I still find myself anxiously checking my e-mail every day anticipating major changes. After all, last year was chaotic. It wasn’t just switching back and forth between virtual, hybrid and in-person learning. We were constantly being informed of changes to just about everything – the major school projects we were to expect at each grade level, the lunch program, the route we needed to take in the school drop-off line, and so on. Everything we had taken for granted in the past was different, or just stopped existing altogether. So, of course it’s hard to accept that maybe this year could look somewhat “normal,” especially with a COVID situation that is changing by the minute.

It seems that I’m not alone in my uncertainty. According to a recent Big Village survey among parents, 74% are concerned about schools being able to remain open at full capacity, and nearly the same amount, 73%, are concerned about the schools reopening safely. We want everything to be normal for our kids, but how do we get there comfortably?

Masking Up for Back to School

If there is anything we’ve learned over the past year though, one person’s sense of comfortable is the complete opposite of someone else’s. If you’re a parent who escaped heated school board meetings, online petitions, and message board arguments, consider yourself lucky.

In comes the mask debate.

In our surveys among both parents and teens, we found that while the majority (78% parents/76% teens) thought at least one group in the school community should wear masks, there is still a divide when it comes to who should wear masks. Over half of parents (56%) and teens (52%) believe that masks should be considered for students. According to teens, adults are the greater concern, with the groups most needing to mask up in the fall being school nurses/health office staff (63%) and lunchroom/cafeteria staff (62%).

Teens in general showed concern about the upcoming year, but less than parents, with 55% concerned about schools remaining open at full capacity and 52% concerned about reopening safely.

A New Beginning

As a mom, it’s really no surprise that when it comes to hesitancy about returning to school full-time, students are concerned, but not to the same extent we are. They experienced firsthand what it was like to be students during the most abnormal school year anyone could have imagined. The last school year had some successes, but they were overshadowed by the many times I had to talk my kids through breakdowns when they just desperately wanted things to be the way they used to be.

While young people can be resilient, over a third of teens (36%) felt that school last year did not go well, indicating they had a difficult time adjusting to challenges stemming from the pandemic. Only 16% said that the school year went very smoothly.

So when we asked teens what they are most looking forward to this school year, we found that 48% are looking forward to not having to do remote learning, and 43% are eager to get their education back on track – a concept that was unimaginable just months ago.

Of all the things teens are most looking forward to in the next school year, seeing their friends was the clear winner, cited by 65%. Taking a step back and looking at the past year, I know this was the worst part of the whole situation for my kids. My sons didn’t see some of their best friends until the end of the school year, and my daughter still hasn’t seen a couple of her closest classmates since the pandemic began. In a pandemic, the thing that students most need to get back to normal, human interaction, is the thing that’s most in jeopardy.

Finding Some Normalcy when Going Back to School

So, this brings back the issue of finding normalcy when going back to school. What if we find a couple of weeks from now that things are starting to look like last year? After living through a pandemic while parenting and analyzing data for a living, I learned that with all the uncertainty out there, so much can be done when you embrace what is certain.

At this time of year, what is more certain for parents and students than back-to-school shopping? We’ve been able to return to our very familiar routine of getting out and buying some new clothes and school supplies. Not only was it a great opportunity to feel a little like this year is going to be normal, but it was fun to see the kids embrace their individuality in the process. Interestingly, our data tells us clearly that when it comes to back-to-school fashion, teens and parents rely on different sources for guidance. A majority of teens, 54%, look to TikTok for fashion inspiration, compared to only 24% of parents. On the flip side, parents still turn to TV ads (41%) and Facebook (40%) for guidance, while only 12% of teens look to those sources. Considering the process, this makes sense. My kids found their inspiration, and the marketers knew exactly how to reach me on my platforms, helping us along. We may be in a pandemic, but it’s obvious from back-to-school shopping that trends don’t stop evolving. We can still find great insights and learn how to best interact when we keep our eyes open and ask the right questions.

Things may be different, but we can still embrace all the unique things about who we are and make the best of it. When things got a little stressful during the school year, who thought we’d have the ability to create a movie theater in our living room as new movies came out? It was different, yes, but we loved it, and it helped us get through a tough time. That’s why I love doing what I do. We have the ability to listen to and learn from people from all walks of life, so even when we feel a little lost, there is always something reliable we can act on to help us move forward.


Written by Jessie Bauer, Director at Big Village Insights