If there’s one thing Stephen Guerriero has learned in his 18 years teaching middle-school students, it’s that they thrive on structure and predictability.
“I know that when I go into this classroom, I start this warmup; I know that I need to bring this; I know that I have lunch every day at 11:15.” Routines like these, he told Vox, are “so linked to middle-school students’ sense of safety.”
But when school buildings closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic this spring, those routines were completely disrupted. And with the fall term beginning and the crisis still in full swing, students’ predictable days aren’t coming back anytime soon. This can have an effect on their learning — but it has a major impact on their mental health, too.
Most students will be attending school either remotely or on a hybrid model, with some days in classrooms and some days at home. And even these new routines are still in flux, with some areas — including Needham, Massachusetts, where Guerriero teaches — delaying the start of in-person school due to concerns that aging school buildings simply aren’t ready to accommodate even a hybrid model.
Add to that uncertainty the fact that the virus remains a real threat, parents have lost jobs, food insecurity has skyrocketed, and teachers, the trusted guides students rely on to get them through a radically different school environment, are also afraid of what will happen to them and their families if they return to buildings that may be unsafe. For everyone involved, the pandemic has been “a collective trauma,” Guerriero said.
And while some families have the resources to help kids adjust to the new normal, others are going into their sixth month of unemployment, or dealing with the demands of online school without reliable internet or space for kids to study. “Their stress level is going up,” Sarah Y. Vinson, a psychiatrist in the Atlanta area who works with kids across the income spectrum, told Vox.
Experts fear that, for students around the country, the stresses of the pandemic could lead to anxiety, depression, or difficulties with learning, and that groups hardest hit by Covid-19, including Black and Latinx Americans, could be the most affected. “The communities that already had less room for air have, of course, been hit hardest,” Vinson said.
To help students across American society cope with the loss of their routines, adjust to new ones, and begin to heal from the stress of living in a global public health emergency, Guerriero and others say schools need to focus on kids’ emotional needs — perhaps even before they worry about the curriculum. “Coping strategies and skills that oftentimes would be ancillary to what we were doing in the classroom,” he said, “now it’s going to have to be the primary thing.”
The pandemic has put students’ mental health at risk
Before Covid-19 hit, school was a constant in the lives of millions of American kids — a place they went to learn, play, eat lunch (and often breakfast), and socialize with their peers. The latter is key — in normal times, schooling by its very nature is a space for social interaction “and a place where we can connect and build these relationships,” Justina Schlund, director of field learning at the nonprofit CASEL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, told Vox.
But in the spring, with schools nationwide shifting to remote learning, kids lost that physical space to connect with each other and with teachers. And while educators were once able to create a supportive place for education in their classrooms, they suddenly had to rely on kids and families to construct such places at home.
“Now out of my 100 kids, I have 100 different learning environments,” Guerriero said. Without a teacher in the room to keep them on task, students have to rely much more heavily on executive functioning skills like self-control — which aren’t fully developed in middle schoolers to begin with. As a result, “they feel like they’re working harder, they feel lonelier, they feel like if they’re struggling with something, they’re the only one,” Guerriero said.
Kids who get mental and behavioral health services at school for disabilities or learning differences are also facing additional disruption. “All these professionals that normally connect with kids in person in school, now you’re over Zoom,” Guerriero said. “It’s just not the same.” This has particularly impacted districts with a higher percentage of low-income families, Vinson said.
Overall, the challenges of online education and the general isolation and stress of the pandemic could lead to a spike in mental health problems among kids. While nationwide data on the impact of the pandemic is still sparse, one study of students in China’s Hubei province, an early Covid-19 hot spot, found that 22.6 percent reported depression symptoms and 18.9 percent had symptoms of anxiety after about a month in lockdown. And in the US, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey conducted in June found an increase in anxiety and depression among adults since the pandemic began, NPR reported on Thursday. Experts are concerned about a possible uptick in suicides among teenagers and young adults, with one in four 18- to 24-year-olds telling the CDC they had “seriously considered” suicide in the last 30 days.
Anecdotally, Vinson saw an uptick in anxiety and sadness among her patients in the spring, as well as increases in psychotic symptoms among patients who already exhibited those before the pandemic. Now, “some families have been able to sort of re-equilibrate and find a new normal, and for those kids, some of them are doing better than they were in April or May,” Vinson said. In other cases — where a parent has lost a job, for example, or where lack of internet access makes online learning impossible — kids are doing even worse.
And the overall environment in a country where the response to the virus has been slow, confusing, and politicized from the very beginning isn’t helping. “Even if a child isn’t aware of what President Trump said, there’s a certain amount of just tension and uncertainty,” Vinson said. “Whether they can connect the dots or not, there’s a way that being in a stressful environment and stressful community absolutely impacts how kids do.”
How schools, districts, and families can help support kids’ mental health
Despite these challenges, experts say, there are ways for schools, districts, and families to help kids through this unprecedented time. For Vinson, it’s important to start with making sure students’ most basic needs are met. “Kids’ nutritional status and having reliable, consistent access to food is really important in terms of how they do mentally,” she said. “School lunch and school breakfast in certain communities is something that families rely upon.”
Programs to continue providing meals while school buildings are closed, such as one launched by the Miami-Dade County school district in the spring, are crucial for kids’ mental as well as physical health. And to make sure kids without internet at home can still connect to their schools, programs like mobile wifi hot spots or in-person learning hubs can be helpful, Vinson said. The San Francisco school district, for example, has pledged to set up hubs serving 6,000 students, where they can get supervision and access to wifi if those aren’t available at home.
When it comes to the content of classes, many say that social and emotional learning — “learning who I am, my emotions, my identity, my values, and how that fits into the larger world,” according to Schlund — is more important than ever. In collaboration with other education groups, CASEL has put together a slate of recommendations for supporting students’ social and emotional learning during the pandemic that is being used by a number of school districts around the country, including those in Chicago and Baltimore.
The recommendations include strengthening relationships between schools and families, something the Cleveland school district did in the spring with a program to call every family to make sure kids had what they needed for remote school. They also include embedding opportunities for social and emotional learning in the remote school day — for example, by having students discuss current events and how they connect to their daily lives, and “using that discussion to help students think about what actions they can take to support themselves, their families, or their communities during this time,” Schlund said.
Schools can help students meet the challenges of pandemic schooling by taking care of their social needs as much as possible. The school where Guerriero teaches, for example, is organizing online clubs around nonacademic interests, like student leadership and spirit days. Schools also need to be thoughtful about how they manage transitions, like the shift from hybrid to fully remote if there are positive cases, because those transitions risk upsetting kids’ sense of predictability and making them feel alienated from school. “When they feel disconnected, it’s almost impossible to reconnect to them remotely,” Guerriero said.
Of course, for many families, school this year is as much about what goes on at home as what happens on Zoom. And parents can do a lot to support their kids’ mental health during a difficult time. “One of the things that’s really important is to have a good baseline of how your child functions,” so you can spot any problems early on, Vinson says. And even though families may be spending lots of time in the same physical space, parents should make sure “it’s quality, interactive time where they really do have your full attention and you have theirs, so you can have a sense of how you’re doing.”
Getting exercise in some form is also helpful for mental health, Vinson says, and it’s something families can do together. And protecting kids’ sleep is also crucial. Especially for older kids, that might mean having them hand over their phone to a parent in the evening so they actually go to sleep when it’s time for bed.
“Given that we know this is a more stressful time” for kids, Vinson said, “we want to put them in the best position possible for their little brains to handle it.”
The CASEL recommendations also emphasize the importance of supporting teachers and staff, so that they in turn can take care of students’ needs. “Schools are places where we’re really relying on adults to play important roles in supporting students socially, emotionally, and academically,” Schlund said. “But we don’t often recognize that they themselves are experiencing the same types of stress and potential trauma.”
Schools and districts can support teachers by making sure their health insurance covers mental health care, having employee-assistance programs in place to offer crisis counseling and referrals, and giving teachers the ability to take time off if they need it, Guerriero said. “We’re going to be in front of these traumatized students as traumatized people ourselves,” he explained. “It’s so important for us to take care of our mental health.”
Overall, experts and educators agree that while kids crave structure, they’re also often highly adaptable and resilient. And the transition to online school hasn’t been wholly negative — some kids prefer remote education, perhaps because they were bullied or ostracized in their classrooms, Vinson said.
But to help the kids who are struggling, and to support everyone’s ability to learn and heal, schools and families alike need to understand how deeply different this year is from what came before. Guerriero, for his part, might start his first class of the school year with some icebreakers — in the spring, “we’d do silly things like kids holding up a pet to a camera,” he said. But “my main message to them will be, you don’t have to know everything I’m telling you right now,” he said. “I just want you to know that I’m going to take care of you, I’m going to be with you for the whole year, and if you have questions, you can come and ask me.”