Return to School: School Psychologists Tackle the Challenges
School psychologists and mental health workers were among those sounding the alarm during the 2020 – 2021 school year, reminding the public that the pandemic and resulting school closures weren’t just about physical health. They were also about emotional health of the children who had had their lives upended.
The students are largely back in school. There is reason to believe that the return to school will have a positive effect on mental health. The CDC released findings from an October-November 2020 study of children learning through different modalities (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7011a1.htm). The study found a correlation between learning modality and parents’ perception of emotional health; parents of in-person learners tended to assess their children’s emotional health more positively. They also reported less personal stress; this is among the factors that might be expected to promote children’s mental health.
The return to campuses also means greater access. For some students, stressors — and crises — are nothing new. But covid-19 made access more difficult. It’s not that school psychologists weren’t trying. They faced challenges ranging from unstable internet to a sense of disconnect to difficulties identifying students. Screening became more difficult.
Dr. Sarah Jerstad, Children’s Minnesota psychologist, sees a lot of positives in getting back to school but also notes that it’s not all celebration (https://www.king5.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/mn-child-psychologist-says-return-person-learning-coming-critical-time/89-18a0a6be-1e64-413e-a600-cd94794cde8b).
She’s not alone. Mental health professionals note continued issues. The school students have returned to is very different than the one they left. Some are having trouble adjusting to their new reality. Some have also lost significant ground academically.
School in the Late Covid19 Era
Desks are far apart, and children are largely confined to them. No ‘turning and talking’ with friends about literature. No huddling with friends in the library to partner read. As for those colorful toys and manipulatives? In many cases, they’re off limits, with children assigned materials to place in their own desks and bins.
Until such time as the vaccine has found its way down to the youngest students, children won’t do as much “mixing” as they have done in the past. Many schools have imposed strict cohorting with classes having their own assigned place on the playground. Physical distancing may be implemented even on the playground.
Older students have lost out on a lot, too, including extracurricular activities and social events like prom (https://www.king5.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/mn-child-psychologist-says-return-person-learning-coming-critical-time/89-18a0a6be-1e64-413e-a600-cd94794cde8b).
Behavioral health expert Shai Fuxman notes that friendship — making friends and being friends — is a big part of the school experience, and plexiglass can get in the way.
Pre-existing friendships, too, have undergone some changes. Part of it is the result of growing and changing in a year spent apart.
The Lasting Toll of Anxieties and Frustration
It is important to remember that while not physically going to school for a year is a huge disruption of routine, it is far from the only one. For some the scars run far deeper. Some have lost family members. Bereavement groups are part of the job for some school psychologists (https://www.nysut.org/news/2020/november/school-psychology).
Many students have imbibed that general aura of fear. Even when restrictions are lifted, some people have had a hard time lifting them. Some educators have reported that their students were viscerally reacting to movies where people were in close physical proximity; even the images didn’t feel okay.
For those with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, a pandemic has a way of exacerbating compulsion.
Then there are those that go the other direction. Canadian psychiatrist Dr Rousseau notes that frustrations led, in some cases, to conspiracy theories and legitimization of violence (https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/topics/child-adolescent-psychiatry/adolescent-mental-health-issues-are-further-exacerbated-by-the-covid-19-pandemic).>/p>
Bottom line: Students’ complex lives have become more so.
Issues With Return to School
Change is in itself is frightening for many. Youth adapt to altered circumstances. While they may have been very disturbed by the initial change, preferring to keep their routines as well as their social life, many are anxious, too, by the return.
Malia Boone, a Delaware Youth Crisis Services Program Manager, states that many kids don’t want to go out (https://www.delawarepublic.org/post/kids-are-experiencing-severe-covid-19-anxiety-delaware-mental-health-panel-discusses).
Some youth found aspects of life easier under the restrictions because they already had anxiety or other mental health issues (Children Who Thrive in Online Learning). Dr. Rousseau notes that school phobia and have been exacerbated by Covid19 confinement (https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/topics/child-adolescent-psychiatry/adolescent-mental-health-issues-are-further-exacerbated-by-the-covid-19-pandemic/).
The Academic Backlog
School psychologists meet academic needs as well emotional ones. They help schools determine who needs special services and at what level. Needs can’t be assessed by a single test, nor can diagnoses. It can be difficult, even in normal conditions, to know when below level performance is caused by insufficient access to academic supports and when it is caused by persistent differences in cognitive function. Many schools use Response to Intervention, with tiered supports beginning inside the student’s own classroom. Covid-19 has resulted in more unequal access to education than the norm. There are many students to offer tiered support to – and many to assist with the emotional fallout of falling behind.
Help is on the way. Some districts are using recovery funds for mental health services.
What will be the long-term effects of our multiple Covid-19 transitions? It’s too early to tell. Psychologists study data as well as offer intervention. One thing that’s sure: They will continue to support their students, innovating as needed (https://www.ednc.org/perspective-school-psychologists-and-the-power-of-possibility-in-north-carolina).
School Psychologist Associations and Organizations: These will have additional resources for school psychologists on this topic