Friday, April 23, 2021

Considering the Social and Emotional Well-Being of all of Our Students

 April 23, 2021

The emotional impact of online learning has been a concern for a great many parents and educators in this past year.  As we have been in various forms of lockdown, including the closure of many school buildings for months on end, some of our students have sunk into depression, anxiety, and lack of motivation to sit in front of screens to complete their work in this most abnormal of situations.  These are very real concerns; some of our students have been hit incredibly hard by the uncertainty of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and the loss of connections with friends who would typically have been lifelines during a regular crisis.  This, however, was no ordinary crisis. Our pandemic simultaneously created one of the biggest challenges in students' lives and cut off the social system of support by which navigating this crisis might have been made more manageable.  We all know that our friends and families help buoy us and bring joy and comfort when things are difficult--and yet students, like the rest of us--could only see their friends through the little screens on their phones, which is a poor substitute for a well-timed hug or just the joy of hanging out together, communing in band or choir or robotics or football or any number of other activities that join like-minded spirits.  There is no underestimating the impact of the social nature of school as a balance for the work at hand.  (In this regard, adults are not so different.  If we are truly fortunate, we have friends with whom we work who make our days brighter and well, more fun as we take on some of the more mundane and monotonous aspects of our jobs.)  To state the obvious, being with friends makes life better.

So it's no surprise that parents were loudly and angrily advocating for bringing their kids back on campus.  "Open up the schools! Our children are suffering!"  And they had a point.  Many children were suffering, and as parents we desperately want to help make things right for our babies.  In a world where Covid-19 was raging out of control, and businesses were being shut down, and normalcy was on hold, parents sought to move the needle on at least one thing that might make them feel like they had some control in a world where control was spiraling mostly out of reach--putting pressure on school boards to open up the school buildings and let the kids and the teachers back in.  As is often the case where people feel like there is a lack of control, there was often misplaced hostility and anger.  There were teachers who felt that with skyrocketing infection rates, we should not be so hasty to move back into the buildings.  Those teachers were met with accusations of laziness and apathy toward their beloved students.  Teachers didn't create the virus or the mandates that the school buildings shut down, and every teacher I know desperately wanted to see their kids.  However, many teachers didn't think they should have to assume the risk of coming down with the virus--or worse yet infecting their own children or parents--when our health officials were pleading with everyone to stay home to mitigate the spread.  Still, there were those who believed that it was our responsibility to take on that risk.  One parent at a local board meeting said, "I know teachers will get sick.  That's a risk I'm willing to take.  Open up the schools!"  He said he was willing to take the risk of me getting sick.  How is that a risk for him?

Yes, I agree that the pandemic has been mentally and emotionally difficult on a great number of people, our students included.  However, it is a bit of a misstep to say that it created a mental health crisis among our youth.  We already had alarming suicide rates and issues of self-harm.  We already had huge numbers of students who dealt with anxiety and depression and bullying and negative self-image and abuse.  What was different?  Being at home and away from a social support system was new and jarring to many of our students, who had been thriving in the traditional system, so their depression and anxiety was new to them--and their parents.  Some kids who had always done well in school were suddenly not keeping up in classes and were suffering mentally, and that was understandably frightening for parents.  On the other hand, we had many kids who were thriving in the online format precisely because they didn't have to deal with the daily bullying or constant reminders that they lacked a social circle and support system.  They were thriving because they didn't have to deal with the sometimes paralyzing anxiety of being in a classroom with people they felt didn't like them or know them or even see them, because they felt like they didn't belong.  Some of those kids could actually relax and focus on the learning in front of them, because the daily social anxieties were no longer a distraction.  We have always had a mental health crisis in our schools.  The difference with the pandemic was that it was different kids who were struggling, and some of those parents saw it first hand in their own homes for the first time this year.

As we have slowly moved back into opening up the buildings and bringing students back on campus, I think it's important to step back and look at the big picture.  We have an opportunity here to really make some important changes to an antiquated system--one that assumes a one-size-fits-all approach is workable and effective.  There have been so many who are pushing hard to go back to normal as soon (or sooner) as possible for the students who have struggled without the structure and security they've always known in their educational experiences.  But just like online learning didn't meet the social and emotional needs of all of our students, neither does the old system of school fit everyone's needs.  Why, then, are we so eager to push everyone back into the old model?  Why are we not looking forward, instead of backward? And yes, we do have structures in place for non-traditional learners and needs, but up until now--and moving forward again if we don't address it--those structures for the 'others' have been marginalized, looked down upon, and deemed only a last resort for the outcast.  It's time to celebrate and explore a variety of paths as important and viable educational options. We can and should create real opportunities to offer well-supported avenues of true educational experiences that meet the needs of all of our kids without making them feel 'less than' if they don't fit into the model that was devised to meet the needs of 17th century America. We live in an ever-changing, digitally connected world.  Our children's learning within four walls of a classroom at a prescribed time each weekday shouldn't be the 'correct' way to conduct our school; it should be only one way, and it certainly shouldn't be privileged over other ways to engage and connect simply because it's the system that looks familiar and is comfortable for the adults with the decision-making power.   

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