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Educators say COVID-19 pandemic taking a toll on students' mental health

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many families struggling

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many families struggling to find routine and balance at home. Luverne Mann, of West Hempstead, has watched her 9-year-old granddaughter, Gabrielle Mann, struggle with a disrupted school schedule and loss of socialization with friends and peers. Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware, Reece Williams

Luverne Mann's 9-year-old granddaughter, Gabrielle Mann, enjoyed the holiday parties at school, or a trip to the mall or park — until the coronavirus pandemic put such events and outings on hold.

Not being able to socialize with other children has taken a toll on the fourth grader from West Hempstead, her grandmother said. But Gabrielle is not alone, as educators and social service leaders said COVID-19 had been tough on children’s mental and physical health since schools shut down in mid-March, then reopened in the fall with restrictions.

"It's hard enough for me as an adult to deal with it — I can't imagine as a child," said Mann, who also is Gabrielle's adoptive mother.

In a survey of school districts across Long Island, several said they had added resources to aid students' mental health, from hiring additional counselors to adding in-person days back to the school calendar. They have held online workshops to help parents identify signs of anxiety, and created ways to reach out to remote learners who may feel isolated.

In Wyandanch, the district has space set aside for students who may need a break during the day. The Longwood district is virtually training parents to become mental health first-aid responders. In West Babylon, every teacher has been trained on how to look for warning signs in children, and how to report anything alarming.

Whether students are learning in-person or at home, mental health experts say they are concerned. At school, children wear masks and sit behind barriers, where interacting with teachers and peers can be challenging. But when schools have to close, that can disrupt a child's routine, said Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of Family and Children’s Association in Mineola. Remote students also might face the stress of isolation, he added.

"All the things being done to protect our physical health is putting our kids' mental health in significant jeopardy," Reynolds said. "And at the same time … school counselors are a really important resource in all of this. And I wonder if kids are more likely to visit in this environment."

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According to the medical trade journal Psychiatric Times, depression and anxiety are prevalent in children and adolescents due to the pandemic.

An October survey by the Long Island Education Coalition found that of more than 5,100 positions added this school year, most were teachers — but 64 spots went to mental health support, including 47 in low-wealth districts.

District hires intervention consultant

Wyandanch Superintendent Gina Talbert said her district hired a trauma intervention consultant to help deliver a more holistic approach to education. The district extended the hours of staff hired to connect with the community and provide emotional support, she said.

Kelly Ureña, the district's social and emotional learning specialist at Milton L. Olive Middle School, has led a districtwide expansion of the CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) approach, where students are taught how to manage emotions, set goals, show concern for others and make responsible decisions.

The district’s student support services teams provide weekly classes — both virtual and in-person — for students to share their feelings not just about the pandemic, but also about social unrest in the country. Students can take a break in a classroom at Milton L. Olive Middle, using the space to center themselves, refocus and take extended mask breaks with guidance from staff.

"Fortunately or unfortunately, the pandemic has highlighted the need for these conversations," Ureña said.

The Family and Children’s Association, a nonprofit that works with Long Island's most vulnerable children, has had such conversations, much of it virtually, Reynolds said. He said counselors had offered in-person therapy, sometimes standing in a backyard or driveway. Virtual sessions have made it easier for some to access services, but that's harder for higher-needs children, he said.

"Imagine you’re an 8- or 10-year-old kid with a family made up of essential workers or you have experienced the loss of a grandparent and you are seeing the unrest live on television," Reynolds said. "We are seeing the anxiety, the depression and seeing things in kids we typically see in those who suffer extreme anxiety."

Before the pandemic, workers from the Family Children's Association used to take Gabrielle to the park or mall — activities that helped her socialize, her grandmother said.

Luverne Mann, 63, since has tried virtual counseling and family therapy, but the online experience was not the same as in-person for Gabrielle, she said. Mann worries about her granddaughter's ability to cope with so much change.

"She was coming along very well, and when COVID happened, the services had to stop. They weren’t the same. It disrupted her life," Mann said.

When her school — Nassau BOCES Jerusalem Avenue Elementary School in North Bellmore — recently reopened, "That's when you noticed an improvement in her behavior," Mann said. "She enjoys going to school. It is the only outlet she has right now."

Sabena Barclay, 46, of Roslyn Heights, has similar worries. She said her son, Evan-Jay Barclay, 17, was just days back into his senior year this month at Nassau BOCES Center for Community Adjustment High School in Wantagh when it closed due to a positive COVID-19 case.

"Kids like my son need that social aspect of being around other kids, even if it's just five kids. They need to have that interaction," said Barclay, who has attended Family Children's virtual parent workshops.

The Family Children's Association has held several webinars for parents, including on how to talk to children, recognize anxiety and model good behaviors, Reynolds said.

Districts adding more in-person days

Two districts in Suffolk County — Sachem and Longwood — plan to add in-person days, hoping to return students to some normalcy. Starting Monday, Longwood students will begin to phase back to in-person, by grade, over a three-week period, Superintendent Michael Lonergan said. That will get students back in class four days a week. Students who chose distance learning can still learn remotely.

The districts said they had seen higher levels of anxiety, depression and trauma among students.

"Those issues are real under the best of circumstances," Lonergan said. "The bottom line is we need our children back in school."

Longwood, with about 9,100 students, has a history of making mental health resources a priority, Lonergan said. The district moved much of its mental health response to a virtual platform, including training parents as mental health first-aid responders. Social workers and school psychologists go into classrooms with Chromebooks to connect remote learners with their peers.

The district partners with Northwell Health for virtual workshops that provide coping tools to deal with stress and anxiety.

Robert Lennon, 17, a senior at Longwood High School, said he had seen signs of stress among his peers, including a lack of motivation to finish their schoolwork. But teachers had tried to make the learning environment "as close to normal as possible," he said.

He agrees with the district’s decision to add in-person days back to the schedule, saying it would not only improve academics, but social well-being as well.

"For me and many of my peers, we have concerns about the virus — not so much for us, but for our families getting it," he said. "A lot of our teachers have given us the opportunity to talk to them about things we can do to make our lives less stressful, and as students we talk to one another. Our counselor’s doors are always open."

"We are seeing a lot of trauma from the pandemic, and we are helping students to stay connected to other human beings during an isolated time," said Stephanie Columbia, the district's director of mental health.

Last school year, Sachem, Long Island's second-largest district with an enrollment of about 12,500 students, hired a chairperson for Social and Emotional Learning. The district added a second chair this year, said Erin Hynes, assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction.

The district has expanded a peer education program created at the high school to all grades. In the program, students engage with their peers to combat bullying and improve communication with each other. The district also produces a monthly newsletter on mental health and offers weekly Zoom meditation and yoga to staff.

"We educate the whole child," Hynes said, adding that academics play into the decision to bring some students back to school, "but for us, social and emotional learning far exceeds the need for this."

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