Virtual Learning and Increased Anxiety...party of one??
Most school districts have entered their second or third week of virtual learning and speaking with a lot of parents and teachers it seems the theme is consistent: This is not working, nor is it sustainable for anyone involved. Sure, we can chalk it up to the notion of people not being equipped or prepared to deliver educational skills in this format. We could also look a bit deeper and see that this is not really about our children’s educational growth at all, and more about debilitating mental health issues that are spiking due to this change of format. Administrators were focused on how to get the school year up and running so that people stayed employed, students stayed on track, and sports could continue as usual. The problem with all of this is that nothing in the world is “usual” right now, so why are we pushing our youngest, seemingly most vulnerable population to go on as usual when nothing around them is.
I couldn’t count on two hands the number of parents who have reached out to me regarding their children’s mental health status at the beginning of the school year. Parents are seeing behaviors and attitudes develop in their homes that had never been present before, and they are attributing this all to the virtual learning environment. Children are riddled with anxiety around their software working, hearing the courses correctly, being present to get credit in the class, turning in assignments on time, and receiving assignments on time. All these pressures that were never present before now are and we did nothing to equip our young people with the tools and resources they need to manage these situations. Now, those concerns I stated are from middle-class parents who are fortunate enough to be working virtually and be home with their children to see these behaviors. How about the lower working class of people who are not home to see what is going on with their children? Trust me when I tell you from experience working with this population that their challenges and concerns are much different.
How about the young person who is also the caretaker for their younger siblings because the adult figure(s) in their lives must go to their job(s) for the family to survive? They once were responsible for waking their siblings up, feeding them, and getting out the door to school. Once that happened, they could attend their own classes and experience some normalcy of adolescence even if just for 6 hours each day. They didn’t have to maintain grown-up responsibilities all day long while also trying to be a student. How about the students at home who have poor internet due to low-income housing and poor equipment they received second or third hand? How about the student who doesn’t want their teacher or peers to see that they live in a one-bedroom apartment with mold on the walls? How about the student who has an adult living with them with mental illness or substance use challenges and is often seen on the screen in their background? What support did we put in place to protect our young people? The answer, not enough if any at all.
Let us not forget about our teachers too. Everyone has been quick to blame the teachers for the frustrations their children are having in this virtual world and often have not taken one minute to think about the frustrations our teachers are having navigating this same platform and maintaining their own homes/lives/children. Our teachers' live-in low-income housing too. Our teachers may be riddled with their own anxiety due to this new space of learning. Some of our teachers are experiencing depression due to feeling inadequate at providing education to our students. Students and teachers may be introduced to substance use as a form of coping during this difficult time and will develop a dual diagnosis because of this, not to mention a lifetime of poor coping skills. Again, I ask, what services and resources have been identified, discussed, or offered to our teachers to maintain their mental health during this time?
We cannot expect to turn anyone’s lives upside down, set new expectations for them, and then judge them on their performance when we have done nothing to support them in this process. School is the safest place some of our young people have to go, and their teachers are the most positive and consistent forces in their lives. Yet right now, that physical space does not exist, and that teacher is a shell of the person they were one year ago. Many teachers are seeing deep into the home lives of their students and struggling with what they are hearing and seeing in the virtual space. Many are performing the role of a counselor/social worker for some of their students with no basic counseling skills being offered to them. If you want our teachers to be successful and our students to excel in this new space then the administrators need to do some serious work collaborating with mental health professionals who are equipped to deliver some serious professional development sessions to your teachers over the next year. What services are the districts offering to these students who start to experience mental health challenges? What resources have been identified to parents who may be struggling with these same feelings during this time? A referral to the local counseling center is not a sufficient resource for our students or teachers. Skills, education, and relevant tools they can use in the here and now are what is needed.
As a parent, I would feel a little bit better knowing that my child’s teacher was doing “well” and had some basic skills to help my child if they presented in their “class” with some symptoms of anxiety or depression while I was not there to see if myself. Get on board and take a proactive stance in this. If you want to buy in from teachers and more support from parents, then start discussing this issue. It is not going away, and if anything, it will continue to increase. Sure, sports may go on as usual, but mental health issues are going to spike to an all-time high, and I am not sure that any district wants to be known for those statistics. This article is not representative of every school district out there because some have excellent leaders who are already making moves around this topic and others who are on the starting blocks ready to get going. I am challenging you in whatever role you bestow to start advocating for educational resources surrounding mental health for teachers, students, administrators, and parents. If you come together and address this issue from several different perspectives, there will be a dramatic shift in the mindset and lifestyles of those involved. We owe that at least to our young people if no one else.