A year into the pandemic, kids face struggles and some silver linings

·12 min read

Mar. 8—When East Lyme High School sophomore Tolby Regan is learning remotely, she finds it harder to stay motivated and focused, even though she knows how important schoolwork is to accomplish her goals in life.

She said she's very social and misses talking to people at school but worries that if she is around other people she could spread the virus to her family or people who are more at risk.

"I may be going through a hard time, but so is everybody else so as long as I keep up with the assignments that the teachers are assigning and doing all the work that I can right now, I'll be at the same level as everybody else," said Regan, who is following the high school's hybrid learning model.

Regan said continuing her cheer and dance activities, getting more rest and working out all help her mentally. She encouraged people to check in with friends and even other people they may not talk to as much because those conversations can help someone who may be feeling down.

She also said that while she has felt progressively worse as the pandemic stretched on, lately she has been feeling better as she sees a light at the end of the tunnel as school districts trend toward more in-school instruction.

Children and adolescents are facing the unprecedented challenge of learning during a pandemic. A year in, many families say they have grappled with remote learning and are worried about missed opportunities for social-emotional development and their children falling behind academically without more in-person learning. Some families, however, have found learning at home has been an opportunity for their children to learn new skills.

On March 13, 2020, school districts across New London County announced they would close for at least two weeks to limit the spread of COVID-19, and students completed the school year remotely. Most districts this year operated under a hybrid learning model with two days a week of in-person learning and three remote days. Several districts are beginning to phase students back to in-person learning plan to offer extra support for students who were disengaged during the pandemic.

Dr. Laura Saunders, a licensed psychologist at the Institute of Living based in Hartford, said the pandemic has impacted every aspect of children's social-emotional and academic development.

"I think that the impact of this global pandemic on children's mental and emotional health has been profound, and it will take us likely years to really look at how much of an impact it's really had," she said.

Educators and parents have also faced challenges.

"The burden that we put on teachers is absolutely tremendous because they not only put themselves at a lot of risk but they are managing situations that they've never ever been trained for," Saunders said. "It's the same way that parents have been put in triple roles. They have to be a parent, they have to be a co-teacher at times and they have to work in their job or profession so it's equally as difficult for parents as well."

Lifelong skills

Jennifer Wells said her daughter, a sophomore, and her son, a freshman, at East Lyme High School, are doing well with remote learning, which the family feels is the best way to keep the community safe until everyone has an opportunity to be vaccinated.

"I feel like overall I've learned a lot more about myself as a learner, and I have done pretty well individually," said her daughter Emily Wells. She feels remote learning is the safest option and it works well for her because she is an independent worker.

Jennifer said her children, who Zoom into their classes, are doing the same work as their peers following the hybrid model. She would like a student to represent remote learners at Board of Education meetings so their voices can be heard and thinks the school district has an opportunity to improve remote learning if it is ever needed again.

Wells said children learning remotely have gained valuable skills that will help them be self-starters during their careers.

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"They're equipped with a skillset that they can learn independently," she said. "They've now navigated basically a college style schedule, and it's a skill."

Impact on social-emotional, educational development

Longfei Xie of Groton, who has a kindergartner and a second-grade student at S.B. Butler Elementary School, said he's concerned about the pandemic's impact on his sons' social life and mental development. To help alleviate boredom, he tries to take the kids hiking and lets them play with with the same neighborhood group, but he worries they could become depressed due to the pandemic.

The family speaks Mandarin at home, so English language learning is important for them, he said. His two sons went to day care at age 2 and speak to each other in English, but being at home they miss out on talking with other kids, staff and teachers. He's also noticed that his sons are shy on Zoom when the teacher asks them a question.

When at home, he's heard comments from his older son that this is "so boring," but when he asks his children after in-person school days if they are happy, they say "of course."

He and his wife both work full-time, he outside the home and his wife remotely, so it's hard to homeschool their kids, though they try the best they can. While he understands the pandemic is tough for everyone, he thinks more in-person class would help his sons' language development and social life.

Remote and hybrid learning have been particularly challenging for families of essential workers.

Laura Harrington of Groton, who has a sixth-grade son and a ninth-grade daughter, said remote and hybrid learning have not worked out well for her family. She works as a nurse and her husband is a farmer, so they are both essential workers and aren't home to help their son work through computer issues or if the Internet doesn't work in his bedroom.

Harrington said the family was searching for resources for him and decided to take him out of Groton Middle School. They scrambled to pay the tuition at Sacred Heart School in Groton so he could go to school five days a week and have the needed structure.

"He's adjusted really well, and he's really responded to the in-person learning," she said. She added that her daughter has done well academically and is excited on days when she gets to go to Fitch High School but overall has felt miserable with the remote learning during her first year of high school.

Rachel Vail, a parent of a Waterford High School senior, said her son has fared well academically during the pandemic. But she said missing out on seeing friends in school every day and activities, such as football, homecoming and other typical high school activities that build school spirit and memories, is taking a mental toll on him and his peers.

"They need that sense of community that they do not have when it's remote," she explained.

Mental, physical effects on children

Sandra M. Chafouleas, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor and Neag Endowed Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut, said experts are seeing an increase in concern about mental health and emotional well-being, especially among teenagers who may be missing opportunities to pursue interests, social connection and independence, at a time when communities are also facing serious economic and health impacts.

She said that if "you don't feel well, you don't do well," so while some students have adapted well to remote learning, many have not. She said it's critical for each student to be connected to someone in school to help monitor when things aren't quite right and for schools to adjust their expectations. As students return to more in-person learning, schools will play an even bigger role in connecting students to support.

Chafouleas, who is also the university's co-director of the Collaboratory on School and Child Health, added that people are starting to realize that the impact of the pandemic "is not a short-term problem," and each child will have different needs.

"We need to be ready to roll up our sleeves and work together across school, family, and community settings to tackle the different issues," she said.

Dr. Bonnie Mackenzie, medical director of the Pediatric Emergency Department at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, said anxiety and depression have increased among children, as the pandemic disrupted school openings, jobs, access to resources and even simple things, such as routines, that are important for children's wellbeing. The effects are most severe among adolescents, for whom being with their peers is so important.

She said parents can help kids by modeling healthy behavior, reassuring them that adults are doing everything they can to keep children safe and healthy, and sticking with routines, healthy eating and exercise as much as possible. Resources are available, for example through the CDC, to help parents talk to kids about the pandemic.

Virtual interaction with peers in a moderated way can help adolescents stay connected, along with interacting in safe ways, such as a socially distanced walk outdoors with their friends.

She said it's important for parents to familiarize themselves with warning signs of stress or anxiety among children and get them extra help if needed.

For example, signs of stress in infants and toddlers can be changes in sleep, appetite or eating patterns, increased irritability and more accidents if they are potty-trained or becoming potty-trained. Older children may experience the more classic signs of depression, like feeling hopeless; experiencing changes in their mood, appetite, weight, appearance, hygiene or school performance; losing interest in activities they used to enjoy; and having trouble sleeping and concentrating.

While it's too soon to predict if the pandemic's effects will be longer-term, she said recognizing when kids are struggling and trying to help them now can mitigate long-term effects: "In general, kids are really resilient especially if they have the support and the help that they need," she said.

Trauma and grief counseling is important for kids who are experiencing the loss of a loved one, and the sooner the kids get connected to resources, the better, she said.

For children's physical health, Mackenzie stressed the importance of healthy eating, exercise and keeping up with preventative health and wellness with their pediatricians.

She said there is concern about gaps in preventative care and routine visits to the doctor, children getting behind on vaccinations, and the potential for health issues to go undetected. With children being more inactive and being on screens more, an increase in obesity is another concern.

Saunders said it's important to understand that children "have really lost a year" due to the pandemic, which is a significant amount of time in a child's life. She said it helps to acknowledge these are difficult times and be "a little bit kinder and more understanding to ourselves and to those around us."

Silver linings

Jess Legnos, a kindergarten teacher in Groton and a mother to two young children, started the Instagram page @Thelazyishmom, during the pandemic to share tips with parents, such as for learning letters, in an upbeat and fun way, and explain how to do activities and science experiments. She said the pandemic has turned many parents into teachers as well, so she wanted to share her knowledge as a kindergarten teacher. She in turn learned from people around the world through the online community.

"It's helped me but it's also been fun for others," she said of the page, which has over 2,000 followers. "It's been an all around great experience."

As school districts plan to bring students back for more in-person learning, they are also planning for more support for students, while continuing to offer a remote learning option.

East Lyme Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said the district has been identifying students who have become disengaged and plans to roll out summer school and intervention work, and implement additional support next school year. Students and staff from the remote learning program also will speak at a Board of Education meeting this month.

Groton Superintendent Susan Austin said that when she visited schools last week to read to them for "Read Across America," she noticed how engaged students were, whether they joined her virtually or listened behind masks and desk shields. She said that speaks to their resilience.

She said there have been silver linings, such as a parent who told her he enjoyed seeing his child learning and interacting with the teacher and peers. That said, the pandemic has been challenging, and educators have expressed that that the social isolation has affected children and some have withdrawn a bit or become disconnected. This fall, the district invited some students, such as students with special needs and English Language Learners, to four days a week of in-person learning.

The Groton school district, which has announced a phased-in plan for more in-person learning, is also looking at opportunities for summer school, credit recovery, camp and extra tutoring. She said the district hopes to re-engage students in learning and bring back more students who chose to learn remotely or to go to other schools.

Thomas Giard III, the superintendent of the Waterford school district, which is phasing students back to in-person learning, with high school students back to five days a week of in-person learning starting April 19, said there is "no substitute" for students leaning in a classroom and kids have missed being in school and enjoying school events.

He said teachers are learning new strategies to support students in class from a social-emotional perspective and the high school team is committed to making this a memorable spring.

k.drelich@theday.com

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