Students face anxiety and stress over COVID-19, and fierce battles over school mask mandates fuel the turmoil, experts say

·6 min read
A teacher takes the temperature of pupils lining up outside school wearing face masks.
Some teachers are being offered retention bonuses during the pandemic. Javier Zayas Photography
  • Mask mandates at schools have been a political flashpoint across the US in recent months.

  • Meanwhile, students are exhibiting stress relating to the risks of catching COVID-19, experts say.

  • Students and mental health counselors are warning of the effects on young people's mental wellness.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Since the school year began, 16-year-old Brandon Perkins has been carrying hand sanitizer everywhere he goes.

He's fully vaccinated, he told Insider in an interview on Saturday, and, at his high school in Strongsville, Ohio, he and his friends wear masks - though plenty of others don't, he said.

The Strongsville City Schools district "strongly recommends" that students and staff wear masks while indoors, the superintendent said in a recent letter to parents. But they're not required.

Meanwhile, the state has no official mask mandate - something that Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said he would favor in comments last week, while warning that such a move would be swiftly shot down by the state's legislators.

At Strongsville High School, "the COVID situation actually has gotten a little bit out of hand," Perkins told Insider. On Saturday, the school counted 16 students or staff members in active isolation, according to a public dashboard maintained by the district. Sixty-nine are in active quarantine. A spokesperson for the district did not respond to a request for comment from Insider.

"I'm trying to do all the protocols that we're supposed to, but if the school doesn't do anything at all, they don't change anything at all, it will just keep getting worse," Perkins said. "Anxiety has gone way up."

The situation comes amid an alarming surge in new coronavirus infections nationwide, driven by the Delta variant.

The US registered more than 150,000 new cases on Sept. 15, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the country has added more than 100,000 cases nearly every day since early August.

In the backdrop of this, Perkins lamented Ohio's "very polarized" atmosphere toward the subject of mask mandates, and that young people's voices have too often been left out of the conversation: "I don't think that young people have ever been asked at all what they think about the mask mandates."

Mask mandates have been a major political flashpoint across the US

A deep schism about mask-wearing in the classroom has emerged across the United States in recent months.

Some parents and Republican political leaders have vigorously opposed forcing students to wear masks in the classroom. Meanwhile, supporters of mask mandates counter that it's the easiest way to slow the spread of the coronavirus in schools and among vulnerable or unvaccinated populations, such as older individuals or students under the age of 12.

Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Oklahoma are among states that have prohibited mask mandates at schools, while 25 states have no policy in place one way or another, according to a review of states' policies by US News & World Report.

States' patchwork public health policies have fanned the flames of stress and confusion for young people - many of whom are fearful of the virus' effects or wary of passing it on to family members - according to four adolescent mental health providers interviewed by Insider.

"When you have an environment where the leadership has not made it clear that masking is required, we tend to see more difficulty," Shayla Sullivant, a psychiatrist who specializes in children and adolescent care at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, told Insider.

"Some young people who are trying to stick with wearing masks in an environment where that is not the norm have really struggled," Sullivant added. "It's hard as a teenager, as a child, to be different from others - and it's also hard to take on that added risk of exposure."

Some students fear bringing the virus home with them

Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker in Marathon, Florida, told Insider that she's observed "some kids who are very concerned" about falling ill with COVID-19.

"Some kids are more concerned about spreading it to family members - kids who live with a grandparent or have somebody who is going to be more susceptible to getting sick. Kids are really nervous about that," Morin said.

A significant number of parents share kids' concerns.

Half of parents in the US said that they wanted their children to attend classes virtually this fall due to coronavirus-related fears, according to survey responses collected between late July and early August which were published earlier this month by the National Parent Teacher Association.

And more than four in ten (41%) high school teachers expressed concern that students' anxieties about returning to the classroom in-person could have a "tremendous impact" on their learning experiences, a survey from the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children's Mental Health found.

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 5 million kids have tested positive for COVID-19, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.

Cases among kids have exploded at the same moment that schools have reopened. The AAP said that more than 243,000 cases had been diagnosed among children in the first week of September alone.

'Underneath it, it's that they're anxious and trying to cope'

Sarah Flier, a school counselor in Wisconsin who works with students between ages 4 and 11, has witnessed the effects on her students.

About eight or nine parents have reached out to her so far this school year with concerns over their children's anxiety, she told Insider. Some of these students are as young as kindergarteners.

Describing their behavioral symptoms, she said: "It can be being easily frustrated. It can be running and hiding. It can be not wanting to come in the building, crying because they're missing mom, a lot of homesickness."

"It's a lot of defiance and refusal too, which, to your average adult looks really disrespectful," she added. "Underneath it, it's that they're anxious and trying to cope."

'I just take it as a major insult'

Seventeen-year-old Matt Chowansky has upgraded his sanitation routine since the start of this school year.

When the 12th grader at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, New Jersey, returns home each afternoon, he takes a shower, hoping it will rinse the virus away.

He ducks into the bathroom in between classes to wash his hands, which can become dry with frequent washing. And before each period begins, he wipes down his desk in class with an antimicrobial wipe, all in the effort to minimize his chances of getting sick.

For students like Chowansky, the return of the school year means being on alert for COVID-19. And while New Jersey schools have a mask mandate in place, Chowansky said that students who brazenly disregard mask-wearing are his ultimate source of consternation.

"It's kind of insulting to people who genuinely are scared of coronavirus. I just take it as a major insult," he said. "My message for people who are wearing masks is: Keep wearing masks. And if you don't wear a mask, you really need to - and you just really need to be a part of the community."

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