SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO)– Students from around South Dakota have experienced several changes in their learning environment since the start of the pandemic, and it is taking its toll on their academic and mental health wellbeing, but those who work with the children say they have been resilient through it all.
Lindsey Carmon, School Counselor for Patrick Henry Middle School, said with the beginning of the pandemic happening so suddenly, the students had no time to really prepare. Since she works with middle schoolers, they adapt the best they can, Carmon said.
“I think that we did the best we could,” Carmon said. “I know that teachers were for sure stressed and trying to figure it out. I know I was because a big part of doing my job is being right in front of a student, getting a feel for where they’re at, their inflection in their voices, their body language and sometimes just being able to like pat them on the back and say, ‘You are doing a good job.’ So a lot of that reassurance I didn’t realize how much of it had to do with being in-person until that wasn’t an option.”
Carmon said a lot of her students would e-mail, set up a Zoom meeting or send her a message.
There was a stress among students about the new format that they were getting their education from, Carmon said. She said there were a lot of families who were not used to the Chromebook and having to rely so heavily on technology, so they had to get their internet set up, which may have prolonged some of the progress students were making in school. There were also parents working from home, who had to balance both work and supervising the education of their children, while others who still had to go in to work had to leave their children at home to do their schooling alone.
The stress has improved since returning back to the classroom, Carmon said. There is still some added stressed and anxiety and some increase in depression, but overall, students seem to be glad to be together, even with the COVID precautions. Kids have been adapting well to the precautions because they know that’s what it takes to stay in the building, she said.
She said there are some students who had anxiety before the pandemic, who have seen an increase in anxiety since the start of it. She said one way she is helping her students cope with the stresses of the pandemic is by just relating with them and letting them know that they are not alone.
Carmon said she is glad they are back in school because she had been noticing some students who were distancing themselves and becoming shyer.
“I know that there are kids that when they are home, they’re in their bedroom, they’re playing video games, they’re on social media, making TikToks, whatever, and they think that that’s interacting with others, but you can’t take the place of a face-to-face conversation,” Carmon said. “They don’t even realize that just in the couple minutes in-between classes that they are able to say, ‘Hey, how’d your math test go?’ or things like that. It’s one of those things that we kind of took for granted but we have a deeper appreciation for it, just being able to have those kind of quick conversations that just come at a random time.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Carmon has seen issues with students academically. She thinks there were some students who did not keep up with remote learning, so they missed up to a couple months of instruction last year. There were some issues with returning back to the classroom after a couple months of remote learning and then having summer break, which has been hard for teachers to balance trying to catch up these students while also teaching their classes, she said. With the new virtual academy, participating students do not have that teacher instruction or the ability to ask questions on the spot like they would in an in-person class.
Carmon says the staff have done a great job of trying to help kids be successful, given the circumstances.
She has been telling her students to give themselves grace, no one could have predicted this, and it has been a lot of added stress on top of what they would normally see within the school setting. Carmon gives her students a list of general coping methods they can use within the classroom including deep breathing, using a stress ball, getting up and walking across the room, standing in the back of the room and take a break every once in a while to reset their brain a little bit. She makes sure her students know she is always available, whether they want to go to her office, send an email or catch her in the hallway.
Abbie Waitman, School Social Worker at General Beadle Elementary, says the major changes she has seen since the start of the pandemic have been a little more on the positive side.
“When I see them here at school, I feel that I see a lot more of appreciation for school and we are building relationships in the school, and I see that a lot from the students and between the teachers as well and other adults in the building,” Waitman said.
Waitman says students have developed an awareness over the last year and they are more in tune with what they need and starting to reach out to trusted adults.
The Rapid City Area School District has started implementing a teaching model called Conscious Discipline, Waitman said.
Waitman said that during remote learning and quarantine, students’ mental health issues were not met as well as they would be in an in-person classroom setting.
“Here, when they are at school, we can start to identify that and then they also have that person to reach out to,” Waitman said. “For the students that were engaging with distance learning, they were able to check in with their teachers and then their teachers would find either the guidance counselor or school social worker to reach out to that student.”
The teachers and social workers set up platforms for themselves, such as Google Classrooms, Zoom meetings, or whatever else the students needed, Waitman said.
Although she does not have research or specific numbers, Waitman says from what she is seeing, anxiety is what she has seen spike the most in students since the start of the pandemic, especially the anxiety of COVID. Students worry about things such as if they were to get COVID, are people wearing masks and being safe around each other, how students can keep their families safe when they return home from school and just the different things that have been put into place around the school, Waitman said.
“It’s a lot of re-learning, re-teaching, for everybody here on how to be safe,” Waitman said.
The school is helping students cope with the mental stresses of the pandemic. Students get guidance lessons by the guidance counselors and they are also able to do those check-ins with the teachers, where teachers are not providing mental health services themselves. Rather, they are becoming more aware and are being able to reach out and do a referral to the social workers or guidance counselors, Waitman said.
Waitman said at school, she has not seen any children showing major signs of self-isolation. She said she saw more anxiety at the beginning of the year, but since there were still so many students participating in distance learning, the in-person classroom sizes were a lot smaller, and that helped the students who may have had anxiety about having to return to the classroom. They do honor what all the students personally need, so that they can stay safe, healthy and feeling less anxious about being in school.
It was a struggle to keep all of the distant learning students engaged in class everyday and getting their work turned in, which is why a lot of the students have been returning to in-person classes, Waitman said. However, the students that are engaging are doing great and having a lot of contact with their teachers and guidance counselors, she said. They are also able to come pick up meals.
There are multiple things that parents should watch out in their children, both for the academic success and their mental health.
Carmon encourages opened communication between the parents and the school, whether that’s with the school counselor, teachers or the administrators.
“I feel that when the students feel as though they have a team and a support system behind them that wants to help them, that wants to encourage them, so that they don’t feel like they are alone that seems to go a big way,” Carmon said.
Carmon applauds everyone in the school system. She said she doesn’t think that everyone realizes the amount of extra work that has been placed on teachers, whether that’s teaching in the classroom or teaching students who are learning remotely. Clerical, administration and school nurses all have to deal with the large process if someone does test positive in the school, to not only clarify that, but to also let the teachers know and let the families know.
She said sometimes sharing with a student that they have possibly been exposed is tough. Carmon has seen a wide range of responses when she has had those conversations with her students.