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Understanding the pandemic’s toll on our youth – the urgent need for normal

Jeannie is a strong student and joy to be around. She has struggled with depression, but with support was getting her life on track in college then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Classes went virtual and the lockdown began. Routines were abolished and isolation began. Slowly she began withdrawing away from friends, family, and everyday life. Then last fall, she returned to her college hybrid schedule that allowed her to attend some classes face-to-face, but only once every two to three weeks, the rest of the sessions remained virtual. She then was quarantined once for 14 days due to exposure to a friend. Then she contracted COVID-19 leading to another quarantining. Routines she tried to establish were disrupted, the depression she had kept at bay began to take over her life again. Friends and family began reaching out to help, providing a short term return to routines, but as the pandemic persisted she returned to a dark place which was getting harder to escape from. Hope for a return to normal faded quickly and she began to question if life was worth continuing.

Researchers have studied children and adolescents following past natural disasters they have found 30-50% have had a negative reaction including anxiety, depression, and distress. These individuals eventually bounced back to normal. Another 1/3 were just fine during the ordeal. The final 15 -30% experience long lasting problems with anxiety, memory, behavioral control, and depression. Scientists say this pandemic is different from these disasters because of the length of time it has gone on, family members or acquaintances have died, parents job loss and financial challenges, and the isolation accompanying distance learning and quarantining.

To measure the pandemics impact on students Harvard researchers followed 224 children from November 2020 to January 2021, surveying their behavior. They found 66% of them experience significant symptoms of anxiety and depression. In a non-pandemic year 30% would suffer such symptoms. Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found children ages 8-17 in families experiencing conflicts during the pandemic, those acting out or having suicidal thoughts were up 14%.

Psychologists and pediatricians note that the stress and anxiety that children and adolescents are experiencing can impact several parts of the brain. The amygdala can be impacted which processes fear and emotion. Processes to store and retrieve memory controlled by the hippocampus can be altered. Activities controlled by the prefrontal cortex are also impacted by excessive and prolonged stress and anxiety, making it hard for children to focus, follow directions, and control their emotions.

Many have been concerned with learning loss of students during the pandemic. One study conducted in January 2021 of students in grades 3 – 8 found that student performance in mathematics had declined 5-10% since fall of 2019. It was noted they could not define what percentage of these students were learning virtual or in-person, a factor that can impact the degree of decline.

Though learning loss is a concern, our larger concern as educators are the levels of anxiety and stress our students are experiencing. Those in ages of 8 – 14, when most students experience puberty, are of greatest concern. This is when the brain is most sensitive to external events and learning experiences, which the pandemic has provided and altered. These are the reasons we need to return to normal routines, all students engaged in face-to-face in-person instruction with no interruptions, and daily student engagement with peers and our education team. Students like Jeannie and others need this to help put hope and a normal future back on their horizon.

Dr. Steve Patchin is Superintendent of Hancock Public Schools. Programs he has contributed to creating include Mind Trekkers and CareerFEST, helping students explore their talents and associated careers in STEM. His research has focused on increasing development of self-efficacy in individual students.

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