One of the greatest impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic was on the American school system. Seemingly overnight, students walked, biked, were picked up, or bussed home from school only to stay there. Many did not return to a classroom or school building for months if not a year or more depending upon location.
In March of 2020 when the pandemic began staying home, social distancing, wearing a mask and learning remotely was necessary, critical, and vital to survival. Two years, two variants, and four COVID waves later the question that lingers is, What did they lose?
School is not only a place where children learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. It is also the place where they make friends, learn how to share, resolve conflict and begin to cultivate their unique personalities critical for the development of their individual identities. For nearly two years this did not happen for all of America’s students. Instead they were cooped up at home, deprived of contact with their friends, and unable to detect a friendly smile behind a mask. Only seen from the chest up on screen, life online never became the microcosm of life in the world that it was supposed to be.
Now that all 50 states have dropped their mask mandates and schools across the country are open for in-person learning teachers, counselors, social workers, and therapists, are seeing exactly what was lost.
Omar Ruiz, a licensed marriage and family therapist and middle school counselor in Massachusetts noticed three distinct impacts of pandemic living and learning on students once they returned in person. They are: social regression, lack of focus and struggle for independence.
“You had kids being placed in a position to attend to their academic responsibilities as though they’re college students and they can’t. Developmentally they need that adult guidance.”
“There was a big gap in some students who are coming into the seventh grade almost presented with like fifth grade behavior,” Ruiz said. “They just wanted to touch each other and we spent a lot of time and space to try to tell them, ‘Like, you’re in seventh grade now. There’s no need to constantly roughhouse people.’”
Beyond students social development being stunted, the other factors Ruiz noted were immediately obvious once in-person learning resumed. Students were no longer able to be off-camera checking their phones, playing video games, getting a snack, or going to the bathroom when they pleased while class was in session. They were forced to sit still and pay attention. A habit that unraveled, or was never developed depending upon the age of the child, in remote learning.
“You had kids being placed in a position to attend to their academic responsibilities as though they’re college students and they can’t,” Ruiz said. “Developmentally they need that adult guidance.”
Courtney Conley, Ed.D, is a mother of two in addition to being a professor and adolescent therapist. She lives in the DMV area. When the pandemic began her son was in pre-school and her daughter was in daycare. Her son didn’t finish his pre-K year and then his entire Kindergarten year was remote.
“He didn’t pick up on reading as well,” Conley said. “He was reading below grade level.”
This is only one of the losses due to virtual school in the pandemic. During the first year of remote learning in 2020, the Center for School and Student Progress found that reading and math scores dropped. Math by up to twelve percentile points and reading by up to six percentile points. In evaluating the impact of remote-learning with some reintegration to in-person school three new studies illustrate that students are at risk of not learning at all; especially the youngest among them.
It is generally cited that from grades K-2, students are learning how to read. In third grade, a critical year for students, they begin reading to learn. Conley’s concern for her kindergartener not reading well was spot on. Now in first grade she has noticed a positive change in how he approaches school in general and reading specifically.
She said, “This year, he has made great leaps and bounds. He’s reading back on grade level.” Conley noticed her son doesn’t dread school anymore like he did when it was online and he was home all day.
These are the other losses for children across the country. Their dispositions have significantly changed in the pandemic. A five year old dreading school manifests itself much differently in middle school aged kids and high schoolers. There have been increases in anxiety and depression in middle school and high school students in addition to increases in violence and suicide. Late last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
Lynn Zakeri, a Chicago based licensed clinical social worker said this pediatric mental health crisis is due to children trying to find control in their own ways. “With some of the clients I see the eating disordered behaviors, the self harming, the obsessive compulsive type of behaviors . . . has increased dramatically.
The CDC noted the increase in emergency department visits for suicide attempts starting as young as twelve years old. As a middle school counselor Ruiz faced this problem head on.
“Two months of just transitioning to a virtual space, we already had a student who was looking up how many pills it takes to kill themselves.” Ruiz was alerted to the student’s concerning internet search history thanks to a program installed on the computer that flagged suspicious content. But for every counselor, teacher, or parent who can catch the warning signs, so many more students are suffering in silence.
Dr. Hayley Watson is a clinical psychologist and founder of Open Parachute, a school mental health curriculum. She said pre-pandemic most people’s mental health challenges, child or adult, were hidden, but the added stress of pandemic life made it more difficult to cope quietly.
“All of those pre-existing things that were there, but were sort of buried have now come up,” Dr. Watson said. “It’s like those things can’t stay buried anymore. Everyone’s kind of falling apart a little bit right now.”
Dr. Watson, who throughout the pandemic has been speaking with kids and teens in the United States, Canada, and Australia and filming them as they discuss their mental health said many students feel hopeless and are struggling to express those feelings. She likens it to post-traumatic stress.
“It’s like those things can’t stay buried anymore. Everyone’s kind of falling apart a little bit right now.”
“Our brain doesn’t adjust that quickly. Our brain sort of remembers that scary experience. So this is why it’s so important that there are programs . . . that are actually teaching kids mental health skills. How do they process it? How do they understand it? How do they come out of it?”
That is the goal behind Dr. Watson’s program. She’s developed a core curriculum driven by students who can speak to other students about their feelings and mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic. By using the videos of the students she’s filmed other students have the safety of knowing they are not alone in their thoughts, challenges and struggles.
“We teach them those skills,” Dr. Watson said. “What are the thoughts that come from a trauma? Where does that come from? How does that impact us? How does that lead to addictive patterns . . . [We] break it down into chunks and teach it as a core curriculum so they understand their own mind.”
“What are the thoughts that come from a trauma? Where does that come from? How does that impact us? How does that lead to addictive patterns . . . [We] break it down into chunks and teach it as a core curriculum so they understand their own mind.”
So far Dr. Watson’s program has been most widely implemented in Canada, though she is doing her best to go from district to district to impress the value of the program upon reluctant administrators who may already be overwhelmed by the toll of working in education during a pandemic.
For those schools that don’t have a program like Open Parachute, solutions to helping children cope with the anxiety and depression and fear and hopelessness they may be experiencing vary. But relying on resiliency because this is childhood and adolescence should not be an option.
“When we continue to say kids are so resilient that allows us as adults to have a passive response,” Conley said. “We’re assuming they’re going to be resilient and they’re going to get through it.”
Instead, Ruiz suggested parents key in to determine if their child is exhibiting any symptoms of anxiety or depression and if so signing them up for counseling either in our out of school.
“Regardless of how busy parents might be and how it might feel burdensome to receive so many emails and messages, do the best that you can to respond to teachers and school staff, because those are the folks who have the majority of information that is important for the child’s learning.”
As the country continues to emerge from the precautions required by a global pandemic to dealing with COVID-19 like an endemic disease such as the flu, the true toll on the nation’s students will continue to be revealed. The toll has so far put them behind academically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. When and how they rebound from it is still to be determined.
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’re a young LGBTQ person and need to talk to someone, call The Trevor Project’s 24-hour crisis hotline for youth at 1-866-488-7386 and/or The Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860.