CHICAGO — During the middle of an at-home school day, Sameka Gates’ 11-year-old daughter, Kylee, suddenly broke down and started to cry while in class. Gates, who is a teacher, hurried to her middle schooler, turned off the camera, and went into full-blown mom mode.
“We just sat there, and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’” recalled Gates. “And she said, ‘It’s so much. I just don’t know.’”
Between exacerbated screen time, limited physical and social connection with friends and a reading disability, remote learning had taken its toll on Kylee, who attends a Chicago Public Schools Montessori.
“At that point, I think we were all just very, very, very overwhelmed,” said Gates, who also helps her son, Ethan, who is in virtual kindergarten.
Remote learning has been a challenging adjustment for many students, teachers and parents since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March. But for students who are spending an inordinate amount of time in front of screens to learn, on top of managing the general anxieties that come with being an adolescent, overall wellness — whether mental, emotional or physical — has, in some cases, been negatively impacted.
According to a recent nationwide study on teacher and student wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic, 46% of teachers reported encountering student mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, academic stress, trauma and grief more often than they did before the pandemic.
Teachers also noted their students’ concerns for their external surroundings, such as food and housing insecurity, and fears that loved ones would be harmed or contract COVID-19, the study said. Physical issues from prolonged desk-sitting are also ailing some students.
Data was collected this summer from more than 2,100 full-time teachers from 46 states. The teachers taught grades pre-K through 12. Loyola University Chicago conducted the research in partnership with three other higher education institutions throughout the country.
Kate Phillippo, an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Education and one of the study’s lead co-researchers, said the overview they got from the study is “that kids are hurting in all kinds of ways.”
“Particularly the combination of George Floyd’s murder and the other events around that time, with being out of school, it just contributed to it being a really frightening and disruptive time for a lot of kids,” Phillippo said. “(They’re) worrying about their safety, worrying about their loved ones’ safety, worrying if they were going to be sick, wondering what was going to happen to them, to their schools.”
During the spring semester, when many schools first shifted to remote learning schedules, 55% of the teachers surveyed in the report said they handled their students’ wellness issues themselves, and it could be because teachers are seeing their student’s lives like never before.
“They’ve got a really unique view on what is happening with young people right now,” said Phillippo, who worked in Chicago Public Schools as a social worker prior to becoming a professor.
Charity Freeman, a computer science teacher at Lane Tech College Prep who instructs seventh through 12th graders, periodically hosts “classroom culture days” for her students. During this time, Freeman pauses the curriculum to check in on how her students are processing the climate around them.
The most recent prompt in Freeman’s classroom culture day was: “How are you adjusting to remote learning?”
“The responses that I got were absolutely heartbreaking,” said Freeman. “That was when I learned that my students are struggling.”
Her high school students reported battles with depression, anxiety and myriad physical ailments from sitting in front of a computer screen all day, like joint pain, headaches and vision impairment.
“I have one student that I still have only seen in class maybe one or two or three times since the start of the semester because he’s been struggling with headaches and migraines,” said Freeman. “He has to see a doctor regularly and now he has to upgrade his vision prescription. There are so many different things for students to have to navigate now in terms of their own health.”
Wellness concerns and issues differ based on age and grade level, too, Freeman said. For her eighth and ninth graders, their concerns are typically more anxiety based, mainly around the “what ifs” of the remote learning setting such as “What if I’m not able to grasp the information and I have an exam? Will I fail?” and “What if my teacher doesn’t have a whole lot of time to meet outside of school for tutoring or one-on-one support?”
Whereas for her upperclassmen students, the concerns may carry a bit more weight given the transitional time of life they’re in, like worrying they won’t get into their preferred college because they’re fearful of going into the school building to take the SAT for health and safety reasons.
“Their (concerns) are very much just as tangible, just as real, but they have definitely deeper consequences because they’re older and they’re closer to the other side of the four walls of high school,” said Freeman. “I have so many students that are legitimately afraid to start the college application process,” she said.
According to the wellness study, 57% of the teachers responded that their students’ trauma caused them personal distress. But addressing students’ wellness concerns shouldn’t only be coming from teachers, who are also balancing the nuances of their own lives, explained Phillippo.
“Having social workers, counselors, psychologists, (and) nurses visibly accessible to students — and teachers — in whatever way possible are going to make a positive difference,” said Phillippo.
Lorri Lanier, a school counselor at Woodson South Elementary School in Bronzeville, said she’s regularly heard from her students that they miss the social interaction in-person learning facilitates. It’s been especially a big concern for the younger students.
“That would probably be the No. 1 thing for elementary kids, because (school) is so much,” she said. “Elementary school is fun, it’s robust … they may have a field day or face painting. Not having the social physical engagement is difficult for them … because that may not always take place when they leave the building.”
In a Gallup poll taken at the end of the disrupted 2019-2020 school year, 45% of parents said their child being away from peers and teachers was “a major challenge” to remote learning. Additionally, 44% of parents responded that their child’s attention span or motivation was also a challenge during remote learning.
Before last school year was over, nearly 3 in 10 parents said their child was “already experiencing harm to emotional or mental health” due to their school being closed and social distancing, according to another poll from Gallup. The findings suggested that mental health concerns for students would be up the following school year.
More than 1,200 parents of kindergarten through 12th grade students participated in both surveys.
A month after the emotional breakdown, Gates and Kylee are in a better groove. Gates feels the breaking point was necessary for her to better assess and adjust to her daughter’s needs.
“(We’re) just getting into a routine and just getting her to a point where she felt comfortable,” she said. “I think we had to have that breaking point in order to figure out what’s working, what’s not working, and how can we fix it so that we’re not stressed out all the time.”
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