When the COVID-19 pandemic began in the early spring, school shutdowns helped safeguard the physical health of students. But those same closures had a significant effect on mental health, contributing to a rise in depression, stress, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among some children.
That surge was one of the reasons some parents and educators were eager to reopen and resume physical classes this fall. However, many schools only held physical classes for a few weeks or even days before spikes in COVID-19 infections forced shutdowns again. That means plans to reopen schools, though well-meaning, have had the potential to cause more harm than good for the mental health of students. This open-or-shut uncertainty can act as an added stressor for children and adolescents who are already struggling.
Cycles of Stress
For almost all students, going to school is a comfortable constant, even if they might be struggling with other issues in their life, says Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, professor of developmental pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. As a result, the schedule of attending school and classes helps create a feeling of stability for students that can be difficult to lose when schools close down. “On the cognitive level, they may get it,” Spinks-Franklin says. “But on the emotional level, it’s so hard for them because they’re no longer in their normal routine.”
Spinks-Franklin says adapting to virtual learning can also have its own challenges. For younger children especially, the brain tends to associate computers more with entertainment than education; forcing the brain to adapt to using it as the main avenue of learning can be very difficult, increasing stress. Stress hormones then affect regions of the brain that control attention and learning, further causing students to struggle, creating yet more stress, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
In addition to the stress cycle, when schools reopen and quickly close, educators have raised concerns that going through such repeated transitions can cause students to lose significant progress on their schooling and struggle to retain what they’ve already learned. Robin Gurwitch, clinical psychologist at the Center for Child & Family Health in Durham, North Carolina, noted that for the first portion of the 2020-2021 school year, many teachers had to focus on helping students retain information they were supposed to have learned the previous year while also teaching new material.
Gurwitch says that moving schools back to in-person learning can have the opposite intended effect of relieving student anxiety and stress, due in part to sudden changes that may arise in response to a rise in COVID cases. Even if schools don’t close outright, new rules or altered schedules to increase social distancing create more disruption, uncertainty and anxiety. “Schools open up again, and students go back, but there’s a little piece of them just waiting for the shoe to drop again,” Gurwitch says. “There’s not an idea that if they go back, they can breathe a sigh of relief because they’ll be with their friends — because they may shut down again.”
Support Your At-Home Student
Gurwitch says in order to address anxiety that children are facing, it’s important for parents and caregivers to be clear with the choices they’re making for their student’s education. By communicating why these choices are best for their safety, as well as emphasizing protective measures such as washing hands and wearing masks, parents are able to help make the situation feel more stable.
“The best we can do for our children is to be supportive of what's happening, and supportive of whatever decisions we're making, and include them in that,” Gurwitch says. “Make sure that they are part of it, and hopefully help them feel some sense of control.”
Spinks-Franklin says in order to help children struggling with this stress, school administrators and teachers need to practice flexibility with students on assignments and schoolwork, and to connect one-on-one with students in order to determine how to best help them. She also notes that the effects of the pandemic and moves to online schooling can vary based on the circumstances of children, such as if they have learning disorders or are struggling with financial conditions, and those factors have to be taken into account when assessing the mental health needs of students.
“Not every kid comes from the same background,” Franklin says. “You are going to have some kids dealing with multiple traumas during the time of COVID. So you want teachers, who may not live in the same communities where these students live, to demonstrate empathy and compassion to those unique needs of their students.”
It’s difficult to say what the lasting impact of the pandemic will be on children and their mental and scholastic development. Franklin notes that, although psychologists can speculate, they don’t have any comparable previous scenario to look at for guidance. Ultimately, the best way to help nurture positive long-term outcomes for student well-being is to ensure that they have access to the positive and healthy support systems that benefited them before the pandemic and will continue to help them afterward.
“Having positive support from the adults in their household, having positive relationships with teachers and feeling connected to their school community in some way … is very good for positive mental health outcomes and academic outcomes for students across the board,” Spinks-Franklin says.