Feb. 8 was like the first day of school for Lonnetta Wilson’s daughter, Kaydi.
Kaydi, a third-grader at Harmony Science Academy, had gone to school online for months. But Feb. 8 was her first day back at school in person. She was excited to see her teachers and sit down in the school cafeteria to eat lunch with her friends. After she got home from school that day, Kaydi sent her mom a message on her iPad.
“I’m done with school it was amazing,” she wrote.
As a winter storm bore down on North Texas two days later, Harmony, a charter network that operates schools across the Dallas-Fort Worth area, shut down all its campuses and held all its classes online. Wilson had to break the news to her daughter that she couldn’t go back to school the next day. Kaydi didn’t take it well, she said.
“Full-on tears,” Wilson said.
Now that the storm has passed, many students in North Texas, including those in the Fort Worth school district, are returning to school Wednesday for the first time in more than a week. Others, including those at Harmony, will go to school online through the end of the week.
Many of those students went for hours or days without power or water during the storm. Others had to go to public warming shelters to escape dangerously cold temperatures, risking possible exposure to COVID-19. Even for students who escaped the worst of the storm’s effects, it was one more layer of disruption, stress and anxiety during a school year that was already full of such things.
Social isolation is hard for students
Wilson has two other kids besides Kaydi: Jeremiah, a seventh-grader at the Fort Worth school district’s Young Men’s Leadership Academy, and Malachi, a first-grader at Harmony. Recently, Wilson noticed Kaydi seemed anxious about school. Her grades had slipped, as well, Wilson said. So Wilson got Kaydi into counseling to help manage her anxiety. Kaydi’s therapist suggested finding ways for her to interact more with other kids her age. So Wilson decided to send Kaydi and Malachi back to school in person.
Wilson could see the difference in Kaydi after just a few days at school in person. She was happy to see her friends and teachers. She’d been away so long that other students at school treated her like a new student, Wilson said, and Kaydi liked the attention. When schools shut down at the beginning of the storm, it was all the more difficult for Kaydi to go back to remote learning, she said.
Carrie Kinzer, the ninth-grade counselor at Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School in Fort Worth, said the social isolation associated with remote learning is difficult for many students. Although the district offers students the option of returning to school in person, many parents don’t feel comfortable sending their children back to school. Those families generally have good reasons for feeling that way, she said, but many students who work remotely have found it difficult to settle into a normal school routine.
“We’ve been a long time without normal,” said Kinzer said.
While schools were shut down last week, Kinzer used the district’s messaging system to send information to her students about warming stations. Kinzer, who was her school’s senior counselor last year, pushed those same messages out to students who graduated last May.
Counselors usually keep those lines of communication with recent graduates open, since some former students continue to need help with college applications and financial aid paperwork after they’ve graduated from high school, Kinzer said. But it’s less typical for counselors to keep in regular contact with former students, much less to connect them with resources for surviving during a crisis, she said.
Many of Kinzer’s students went without power or water for several days, she said. Most seemed to handle the crisis well enough, she said. But for most, it was one more challenge to contend with, she said.
Remote learning affects students’ mental health
Mental health professionals have expressed alarm at how remote learning and the other effects of the pandemic have affected Fort Worth students. In September, Cook Children’s Medical Center admitted 37 children who had attempted suicide, hospital officials reported. It was the worst month for youth suicide attempts the hospital had seen since at least 2015, said Dr. Kia Carter, the hospital’s medical director for psychiatry.
September’s total came after what hospital officials called an “alarming” uptick in youth suicide attempts in August, when the hospital admitted 29 children who had attempted suicide. The pandemic wasn’t the only factor driving that uptick — about 30% of the children reported issues with sexual identity and gender. But hospital officials said remote learning and the social isolation that came with it were factors, as well.
Amy Parten, a counselor at Meadowbrook Elementary School, said she’s talked to many young students who have anxieties surrounding the pandemic. Some are afraid of dying of COVID-19 or losing a family member. Others worry about all the unknowns associated with the pandemic. Students in remote learning worry they’ll lose their friendships because friends at school will form other attachments while they’re away.
Younger students tend to be more emotionally resilient than older students or even adults, Parten said. Some of that resilience comes from a lack of experience, she said. Adults dwell on things in the past or worry about the future. Young children generally don’t have the framework to worry about those things, she said. They also don’t have the world experience to understand what they’ve missed either during the pandemic or a winter storm, she said.
Lost social interaction affects young students
Rachel Madison has three kids in the Fort Worth school district and a fourth in pre-K at Concord Christian Learning Center. On the first day off, her kids were excited to see the snow, she said. But as one day stretched into four, they got tired of it. They wanted to be at school with their friends, and they were frustrated that they didn’t know when they could go back.
As frustrating as the winter storm was, Madison said the family was better prepared than they might have been before the pandemic. Before COVID-19 reached North Texas, the family took regular weekend outings to places like SeaQuest, the Fort Worth Zoo and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. But when the virus gained a foothold, those places closed, and her kids got used to staying home on the weekends. So when her kids were forced to stay home during the winter storm, it wasn’t much of an adjustment, she said.
But Madison worries about the amount of school her kids missed during the storm. For her older kids, a week off from school most likely won’t make much difference, she said. But she worries about her youngest two. They missed out on social interactions at the beginning of the school year and again while schools were closed for the winter storm. For young children, those interactions are an important part of the learning process.
Since her kids have been out of school, Wilson, the Harmony Science Academy mom, has used her calendar to keep Kaydi from feeling too discouraged. She points out what day it is, and explains what’s happening that day. Then, she shows her how many days she has to do remote learning before she can go back to school in person. That generally helps Kaydi feel a little more at ease, she said.
Those kinds of conversations have been helpful, not only during the winter storm, but also since the beginning of the pandemic, Wilson said. She tries to be open with her kids about what’s happening so they know what to expect, she said. Since the beginning of the pandemic, her kids have had to learn how to be flexible during a crisis, she said. She thinks that flexibility helped them deal with the disruptions the winter storm brought, as well.
“In a way, I feel like they were pretty prepared,” Wilson said. “Had this happened and we hadn’t gone through the COVID crazy, I think it could have looked a lot different.”