Part II-It’s been a year: how are our kids? The effect of pandemic-era education on our children’s mental health.
In the second part of a three-part series, North Salem parents share how their children have fared emotionally one year into the pandemic.
In early March of 2020, the Pequenakonck (PQ) school calendar was full of fun extracurricular activities. Spring After School Enrichment (ASE) had just begun, the new morning “Book Club with the Principal” was in full swing, and the 3rd grade concert was just around the corner. After hours of rehearsal, The Golden Stage Society at the North Salem MSHS was on the cusp of performing The Sound of Music on three consecutive nights. All of that came to a screeching halt in mid-March when the school district suddenly had to shut down in-person instruction and pivot to distance learning.
What started off as a two-week closure with plans to reopen March 30 turned into a complete shut-down, with North Salem students not seeing the inside of their classrooms again for the rest of the school year. From organized sports, to the highly anticipated Bronx Zoo and Ellis Island field trips, to milestone celebrations-all events and activities that engaged students outside of the classroom were suddenly gone. One could argue that from our children’s perspective, life as they had known it was gone in a Thanos-like snap.
This kind of overnight change would be jarring for anyone, but for many children, it has been especially damaging. According to a November 2020 CDC report, from March to October 2020, the proportion of emergency department visits related to mental health increased by 24 percent for children age 5-11 and increased by 31 percent among adolescents age 12-17, compared to the same period the previous year. The report suggested that disruptions to daily life during the pandemic, anxiety about contracting Covid-19 and social isolation were all taking a toll on children's mental health.
The 2020-2021 school year has continued to bring its own set of challenges to students: juggling the new landscape of cohorts, adjusting to wearing a mask in school and the new social distancing guidelines, acclimating to the hybrid model of instruction, the struggle of trying to stay focused during classroom Google meets, intense social isolation, stressed-out parents, financial insecurity, internet connectivity issues, and getting placed in and out of quarantine. It has now been a year, and by any metric used, it is clear that many students are emotionally burnt out and have hit a pandemic wall.
The last twelve months of perpetual uncertainty have dealt a heavy blow to teenagers in particular. Teens, not often a group who embraces delayed gratification, have felt deeply the loss of milestones and rites of passage like graduations, birthday parties, and athletic seasons. For those students whose identities are closely intertwined with their involvement in athletics, the past year has been especially difficult. The spring 2020 athletic season did not occur at all, devastating many students looking forward to sports such as baseball, soccer and lacrosse. Low-risk sports, like soccer, eventually made a return in the fall with restrictions and mask mandates.
While a resolution passed in February permitting North Salem High School athletes to participate in high-risk winter sports (which includes basketball, hockey, football and lacrosse), the delayed and compressed season has been deeply felt. For many students, the bulk of their social interactions happen on an athletic field, court, or facility. “We missed the school sports so much, especially basketball,” Heather DiPaola said. “We are a basketball family. My daughter was devastated.” While some families have been able to afford private sports, many others have had to do without. DiPaola made every effort to have her children still participate in sports throughout the pandemic so that they could have some form of socialization.
According to some parents, the biggest toll on teens has been the lack of in-person socialization. Melissa Reiss’s senior is deeply missing the social environment of normal times at school, including her time spent in the theater, clubs, and organizations. “Doing things like participating in a Model United Nations conference remotely is just not the same,” Reiss said. While logging in to a remote class every morning may be depressing, for Reiss’s daughter, going into the building, a huge reminder of what senior year SHOULD look like, is even more depressing.
For Maryanne D’Amato’s sophomore and senior, attending school has lost some of its appeal because, often, there simply aren’t that many students in the building. “The students can’t socialize and they need to wear a mask all day,” D’Amato said. “Add in the absence of after school clubs or sports, and the result is that many of the students simply don’t feel a strong connection to the school community.” On top of all of that, D’Amato says that the worst part has been the risk of quarantine. “This is a fate worse than the actual virus to these kids. They were quarantined several times this year from going to school which was mentally taxing on them. Now with new quarantine rules (which reduced the quarantine period to ten days without a testing requirement if no symptoms are present), I think it will help.”
D’Amato says that Senioritis during Covid takes on a whole new meaning. “The kids are tuned out, depressed and really apathetic about most things,” D’Amato said. “My son is keeping up his grades because he can and knows he must as college applications are still forthcoming, but he is ready to move on to the next stage of his life- hopefully post-worldwide pandemic - but aren’t we all?”
While the elementary students seemed to face more academic challenges than their older peers, the opposite appears to be true when it comes to the emotional effects of the changes in the past year. While the past year has been an emotional minefield for many middle school and high school students, for some of the youngest learners, who may not fully comprehend what they are missing, the social and emotional toll has not been as devastating.
Jen Logan feels conflicted because while she is sad that her daughter has missed out on a “normal” school year, she is grateful that her daughter is only six, and thus, doesn’t really know what a typical year at school looks like. “Last year (Kindergarten) was cut short and she didn’t have any school concerts, trips, or author visits. I think it’s been easier for the little ones to adjust because they don’t really know what they’re missing,” Logan said. She was also worried about her daughter wearing a mask all day, but Logan has noticed that sometimes her daughter doesn’t even take it off when she gets in the car at the end of the day. “I think she has acclimated remarkably well, as have her peers.”
When Logan’s daughter first went remote last year, she missed her friends and had a hard time seeing them in their virtual meets without being able to have play dates with them. However, she adapted quickly and the family discovered creative ways to maintain social relationships. “I let her use the Messenger Kids app on Facebook to chat with her friends, something I wouldn’t have allowed pre-pandemic,” Logan said. “She’s also had a few virtual play dates, and sometimes she and a friend pretend Barbie is having a Zoom meeting.” While play dates at the park happened occasionally in the fall, Logan admits that it has become more challenging to find social outlets during the winter. Logan also worries that her daughter is missing out on extracurricular activities. “Her ballet recital was cancelled last year after they spent months in person and on Zoom practicing their routine,” Logan said. “She stopped asking about it a few months ago.”
The parents of the younger students seem to generally agree that their kids have been very resilient. Jillian Abisch, (who has four children ages 7, 4 and 20 months) admits that while she was upset and disappointed that her children were missing milestones and the opportunity to make memories with extended family, her kids have handled it well. “It seems like they have acclimated to this ‘new’ normal a lot better than the adults. I think back on missed birthday parties, holiday gatherings, vacations etc. My kids did not mention that they missed these events and they still enjoyed our new way of celebrating,” Abisch said.
Absich also said that with her second grader’s return to full-time, in-person learning, she has noticed a change in his general state of mind. “My child has a very positive view of school when he is in person,” Abisch said. “When he returned this week, he came home much happier.” Instead of talking about what he learned, Abisch noted that her son was excitedly telling story after story about his friends. “He seems to be much more animated and excited for continued social interaction.”
Vince D’igrandi, principal at the MSHS is aware of the social and emotional toll the past twelve months have taken on his students. At the MSHS, Digrandi says that teachers, school psychologists, and counselors are constantly checking in with students via meets, in-person discussions when students are in building or via surveys to gather information on needed interventions. “We have a cadre of resources for our students beside the surveys and constant checking in by staff,” Digrandi said. “We created a Warriors Club several years ago whose members focus on student mental health. We are a Yale RULER school and employ the strategies to identify student/staff emotions and how to express emotions appropriately as well as regulate our emotions effectively. We also have a District MHAT (Mental Health Awareness Team) which meets to discuss these issues and work to implement programs and ideas to address them.”
The MSHS also has a system that alerts the school to websites visited on school-issued Chromebooks. The system triggers when students search online for information that may suggest self-harm or other red flags, and it is periodically reviewed by the IT Department and administrators. In addition, the school relies on the community to look out for one another. “We also utilize Anonymous Alerts so students, staff, or parents can alert us to harmful or dangerous behaviors they are made aware of, through our website,” Digrandi said. “Our students do a wonderful job of looking out for each other.”
In Part three of this series, North Salem parents will share the unexpected silver linings of the past twelve months.