Taliyah Rice, a high school senior near Chicago: "Virtual school made it so much easier for me."
CNN  — 

Taliyah Rice returns next week for her final year of high school in suburban Chicago. She’s anxious about going back to in-person learning, but it has little to do with coronavirus fears or first-day jitters.

Taliyah is mostly worried about facing social pressures she hasn’t had to deal with in more than a year. Virtual learning, she said, helped her to thrive in class and engage more with her studies than she did in person.

“For online classes, you don’t have to worry about trying to fit in, who will talk to you in the hallways,” she told CNN. “I struggle with social anxiety and overthinking. Virtual school made it so much easier for me. I didn’t have to deal with some of those pressures.”

As schools reopen across the US, many children are excited to get back into classrooms with their friends. But for some others, especially kids with social anxiety, online learning was a welcome respite from bullying and the stress of trying to fit in. For them returning to school, with its classroom dynamics and cafeteria social pressures, can feel daunting.

Taliyah, a straight-A student, transferred to her school in Chicago Heights as a sophomore and spent her whole junior year doing virtual classes. So now she’s returning to school without much chance to get to know her classmates – something that’s added to her anxiety.

The high school senior says she felt more comfortable interacting with teachers and fellow students online during the pandemic. She’s felt at ease asking questions in class from the safety of home.

“For children with social anxiety, virtual learning took away the social pressures to look or act a certain way,” said Robyn Mehlenbeck, director of the Center for Psychological Services at George Mason University. “There were fewer pressures to dress a certain way, cameras were often off so no one could see their expressions and there was less pressure to verbally participate in front of others.”

And as the Delta variant drives another surge in Covid-19 cases, shifting rules about mask wearing and other school procedures are also causing confusion and stress among students planning their return to classrooms.

This student says virtual learning helped him escape bullying

Shun Jester, 10, also is not looking forward to attending school in person.

The fifth-grader just started the new academic year at a charter school in the Atlanta area. His school allowed students to choose between in-person and virtual classes.

“I picked virtual because I get to spend more time with my family and see them all the time,” he said.

Shun Jester, 10, is comfortable on computers and likes virtual learning.

Jester said he’s been bullied at school by kids who call him ugly. One of the positives about virtual learning has been he doesn’t have to face aggressors because there’s no recess, he said. School playgrounds can be hotbeds of bullying, he said.

“Recess is where a lot of kids got bullied. I kept away from people to avoid the name calling and the curse words,” Jester said. “I really didn’t care about the name calling because I know I’m not any of those things. But I feel so much safer doing virtual learning.”

Jester said transitioning to online learning was not a big deal. He wants to work in animation when he grows up, so he’s always been comfortable around computers.

To maintain his social connections, his parents planned sleepovers and other events that allow him to spend time with his friends. Jester said he misses school activities such as field trips, but that’s not enough to make him want to return to campus.

Shun also wakes up at home to his favorite breakfast, made by his grandmother: giant, fluffy pancakes and corned beef hash with eggs. That has only added to his enthusiasm about virtual school.

“My mom told me I may have to go back to in-person learning in January, and I’m not excited about that,” he said. “I want to do virtual for a long time.”

The pandemic has exacerbated back-to-school anxieties

The pandemic has taken a toll on children in different ways. A recent study found that rates of depression and anxiety among youth doubled during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels.

After an unprecedented year filled with uncertainties, a return to pre-pandemic life – whatever that may look like – is overwhelming for a lot of people, said Mehlenbeck, the clinical psychologist.

“It’s definitely not limited to introverts. Many kids lost a year and a half of developing social skills, so many of them are worried about going back into that world,” she said. “Some kids were in middle school when the pandemic started, and now have to jump right into high school. It’s not easy.”

A child attends an online class at the Crenshaw Family YMCA on February 17, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Children and teens also face different anxieties, Mehlenbeck said.

“While a younger child may worry more about getting sick or if they will have friends in the class, teens are likely to focus more on the social interactions and pressure to perform in front of others,” she said.

As students return to school, whether in-person or virtual, parents can play a key role by being on the lookout for any signs of anxiety in their children – and managing their own anxiety as well, Mehlenbeck said. If children perceive that their parents as worried about them returning to school, it will likely magnify their own fears.

Parents should also monitor their kids for changes in mood, increased irritability and signs of isolation, and counter that with social activities such as meeting a friend for an outdoors play date, Mehlenbeck said.

There’s no one right way of learning for every child

Some experts have worried that prolonged online learning can be isolating for kids.

But research shows that virtual learning can be as good as classroom learning if done right, said Christine Greenhow, associate professor of educational technology at Michigan State University.

“Used well — online chat, discussion forums, replayable video lessons, online meetings, etc. offer tremendous opportunities to make students more engaged and accountable,” she said.

Mehlenbeck believes in-person learning carries a lot of social and developmental benefits.

Students at Tussahaw Elementary School  in McDonough, Georgia, on August 4, 2021.  Schools have begun reopening in the US, with most states leaving it up to local schools to decide whether to require masks.

But there is no one right way for everyone, she said, and families must pick what works best for them and their children.

Taliyah is ready for the new school year starting on August 23. She has a stack of masks – all in pink, her favorite color – plus hand sanitizers, wipes and all the pandemic items students need.

And she’s trying to go back to school with a positive attitude.

“I’m anxious, but I’m looking forward to spending time with my friends, involving myself in my last year of high school and changing my perspective about in-person learning,” she said.

Shun, the Atlanta fifth-grader, is not in a hurry to get back to in-person learning. He’s hoping to convince his parents to extend his return date past January.