PREBLE COUNTY — The 2020-21 school year has been and will continue to be like no other.
Many students have spent the majority of their time looking at a computer screen if remote learning is what parents opted for.
For those who are attending school in person, drastic changes are still being seen with masks, social distancing, lunch, and even how and where they walk in the hallways.
Regardless of the circumstances students find themselves in this school year, there’s little doubt that these changes can have a significant impact on the mental health of students.
“For a typical school year, the students have a lot of support,” said Michelle Gebhart, a mental health therapist and owner of Gebhart Counseling Solutions. “There are teachers that provide social-emotional support in the classrooms just by the nature of their roles. We provide mental health support in four of our districts for students that have increased needs. We see a lot of students with anxiety, with depression. Younger students, a lot of impulse control.”
Students see benefits during a normal school year such as being around other students and having people around them who can notice if something is wrong, according to Natasha Marshall, a school mental health therapist at National Trail for grades 7-12.
“When it’s not a typical school day or they’re not in school, they don’t get quite that many eyes on them,” she said.
The issues that Gebhart mentioned come up during a normal school year, so in a year like this one where students are attending school either virtually or in person against the backdrop of a global pandemic, these issues can be made worse.
Marshall said that struggles can depend on the specific remote learner.
“We have some that are thriving, they are doing better than they ever have in school, they’re getting their stuff done. They’re less stressed, their mental health is better because they’re remote learning.
“We have others who don’t have access to internet and have to do remote learning,” she said. “Or, their families have decided that it’s going to keep the older child, keep all the kids home for remote learning so they can take care of younger kids. Those kids are struggling, for sure.”
Abbie Steele, a school-based mental health therapist at Tri-County North for grades 7-12, said that the biggest thing remote learners are losing is connection.
“We’re not able to communicate with them for a number of different barriers. So, we don’t actually have eyes on those students,” she said. “We don’t know from the day-to-day how they’re doing. I think they’re not getting that support in the way that they would just because of [our] access [to them].”
Trisha Strozier, a therapist at Tri-County North for grades K-6, added that students are not getting the social interaction with peers that they normally would with remote learning.
Beyond how students are dealing with learning this year, there’s also a concern for students who are staying home that may not live in positive home environments.
“We’re very concerned, obviously. I can tell you that,” Marshall said. “This is year three for me [at Trail]. Week one, I got stuff that I would expect three months in from my kids. They’re struggling with the whole being home thing for sure. We know some of those families that are remote are the families that struggle, and so not being able to get to them, it’s very difficult for us.”
While the focus has on those in remote learning, impacts are also being felt for those that are still attending school in person.
Maddy Roell, a school-based mental health therapist at Preble Shawnee for grades 5-12, said that she was expecting some kids to be defiant about the regulations that have been put in place.
“I’ve maybe heard of two, and [staff] ask them to put it on and they’re like, ‘Fine.’ They’ve been really respectful of just understanding this is how it is,” she said. “Whenever there’s a change in some of the rules, they’ll listen and they just go with the flow. I think they came in this year knowing things are going to be super different. So, it’s just kind of been an easier transition than what was expected.”
Marshall and Steele agreed with Roell that students have adapted well.
“I expected the same thing, like them blowing it off or pushing the limits, and I haven’t seen any of that because we’re all going through it,” Steele said. “We’ve kind of built this community of, ‘we’re in this together, and this is what we have to do.’ They’ve been more responsive to that.”
Even with some of the regulations limiting interaction between students, Gebhart said that students are finding ways to adapt.
“They can only sit with ‘x’ amount of people at lunch, but they’ve learned to be okay with that…the alternative is being at home, and they are social creatures and they want to be around their friends,” she said. “So, if [they] have to figure out a different way to socialize, I feel like they’ve really adapted well to that.”
Tri-County North, Preble Shawnee and National Trail have all had positive COVID-19 tests within their facilities at time of press, and these therapists fear what could happen if these restrictions for students continue on later into this year or even into next school year.
“Last spring, just the level of anxiety, you know, the lack of motivation. I think there’s been increased depression, overall,” Gebhart said. “Personally, I feel like for kids, the longer that they’re isolated overall, the greater that impact can be on their mental health in a negative way.”
Marshall added that she teaches her kids that anxiety tricks them into thinking they’re in danger, but in this situation, there is an actual danger.
“When they’re isolating because of their anxiety, typically that anxiety gets worse,” she said. “So, I foresee the same thing where if they are staying home, and they’re isolating, the idea of going outside of the home gets more and more and more intimidating.”
Though students will continue to face these challenges this school year, Roell believes this can turn into a teaching moment for students and allow them to understand and control fears that can lead to anxiety and depression.
“A lot of kids are like, ‘I’m here at school, I’m going to get sick and get my whole family sick.’ Let’s think about that,” she said. “There is some element of reality based in that fear, but what is actually going to happen and what can you control in that fear? That gives us an opportunity to teach them how to do that in every situation. This is just a situation that every single person is facing right now.”
Reach Braden Moles at 937-683-4056 or on Twitter @BradenMoles