University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Will the Kids be OK?

After a year of enforced distance learning, educators worry about the long-term effects on childrens’ mental health.

Illustration credit: Stan Fellows

Before the COVID-19 pandemic sent students at Folwell Performing Arts Magnet into distance learning, school counselor Jeanette Vyhanek (M.A. ’17) had plenty of opportunities to support the social and emotional well-being of kids at her Minneapolis school, which serves grades 5-8.

Vyhanek usually met regularly with teachers to get feedback on which students were struggling and would then set up weekly one-on-one sessions with them. She helped friends process and resolve the social dramas that are part and parcel of being a young teen. And she was available for spontaneous conversations when a student pulled her aside in the hall.

That all changed on March 18, 2020, when Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed an executive order mandating that schools across the state shift to online learning. The Folwell school—and many others like it—remained empty for nearly a year.

During that time, Vyhanek was forced to try to establish and maintain her essential relationships with students as just a face on a computer screen, sometimes with little success. Kids were so overwhelmed with emails that Vyhanek’s requests to schedule appointments got lost. Teachers had a hard time determining how students were faring because so many of them showed up for class with their video functions turned off.

“It’s been an extremely difficult year,” Vyhanek admitted in late February. “For the students I’ve been able to get ahold of, they are overwhelmed,” she said. “They miss their friends. They miss school. And they are afraid of getting Covid.”

While mandated distance learning for kids arguably helped slow the pandemic’s spread and protected vulnerable older adults, it also exacted a cost. The pandemic also has laid bare the vital role that schools play in nurturing and maintaining children’s mental health.

As Minnesota and the rest of the country begins its slow climb back to quasi-normal as vaccinations grow and the pandemic slows, educators and others who work with younger students are beginning to assess the toll this past year has taken.

Educators have long known that for some students, the structure of an in-person school day can be a safe haven from a chaotic and unpredictable home life. For others, it’s the place where they gain self-esteem by discovering what they’re good at, be that poetry, scoring goals, or memorizing lines for a play. And challenges with anxiety or depression or more serious mental health conditions are often first flagged by teachers, who have more experience with what’s developmentally appropriate than parents. Schools are also a key setting for spotting potential signs of child abuse. (While reports of child abuse declined during the pandemic, emergency room visits showed an uptick in the kinds of injuries consistent with child abuse, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.)

In routine times, teachers refer at-risk students to school counselors, social workers, or the nurse. Those trained professionals then connect families with mental health resources, including counseling and diagnostic testing, which are often provided through the public school district. But enacting those same safeguards became difficult if not impossible during the height of the pandemic. And while not all kids suffered equally—some students with social anxiety, for example, found online school less stressful—the full fallout of our pandemic school year on overall student mental health may not yet be apparent.

Even in a normal year, 13.2 percent of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 will experience a major depressive episode, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Vyhanek and her colleagues at Folwell say that during this coming school year, they will be watching students for signs of social anxiety, increased substance use, and whether or not their home lives are stable when school hopefully reopens for full in-person learning this fall. (In some schools, even cafeteria workers and custodians are trained to spot suicidal warning signs in kids.) 

While the stressors of the pandemic have affected everyone, not being in a traditional school environment in the 2020-21 school year was especially hard on teenagers, some of whom had the added stress of trying to attend online classes while also caring for younger siblings so their parents could work. And at a time when teens were separated from their friends, it became even more difficult to process the situation.

“Adolescence is a time when peers become more important as teenagers are naturally moving away from the influence of their parents,” says Carrie Borchardt, M.D., who did her psychiatric residency at the U of M. Borchardt is a retired child and adolescent psychiatrist and president of the board of directors for the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Minnesota chapter.

Meghan Hickey (B.A. ’04, M.A. ’07, Ph.D. ’10), interim director of student services at Robbinsdale Area Schools in Minnesota, agrees. “[Seniors have been] worried about transitioning into adulthood without the last two years of their school experience and all the things they would have had if they’d been in school,” she says. “And they [were] worried about not getting to say goodbye to their friends before they go to college.”

Fears about the virus have increased anxiety levels for teenagers and younger kids, too. “Our young people are dealing with the same stresses as adults,” Hickey says. “They’re worried about getting sick. They are worried about their family members getting sick. They are worried about what all this means.”

While all Minnesota schools were cleared to reopen for in-person or hybrid learning in late February, Borchardt and Hickey say certain milestones have been irretrievably missed during this truncated year. A lack of in-person extracurricular activities during the pandemic meant athletes who would have made a varsity team may not have had a sports season. Graduating thespians missed the opportunity to get lead roles in the school play. Musicians didn’t get to play a solo.

While it’s easier for an adult to take the long view and understand there will be other opportunities, teenagers just see loss. After all, a year is a very long time to lose for someone who is only 15.

“There’s [been] a lot of isolation, students just feeling like they’re by themselves,” says Becky Mendoza (M.A. ’19), a licensed school counselor at Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul. “That social connection that teenagers got from school [was] just ripped away from them and they’re struggling with that.”

As with other aspects of the pandemic, Covid-19 also has taken a disproportionate toll on the mental health of students of color and kids from low-income families. “The pandemic is showing how school districts have become the haves and have nots,” says Alice Kraiza (M.P.H.’18), a project manager who works on trauma interventions in schools for the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut. “Some students [had to share] Chromebooks with their family members, but there wasn’t enough bandwidth to have a telehealth session. The caregiver wants to support the child, but there literally [wasn’t] the ability to do it.”

Public health experts have estimated that children younger than 16 might not be vaccinated until 2022, although that too remains uncertain. If true, however, when kids go back to school this fall, masks, social distancing, and quarantines could still remain. Educators don’t yet know if what are currently considered highrisk activities, including choir and science labs with a partner, will even be possible. Adults may be planning their post-vaccine futures, but American children will have to wait for the institution that largely defines their young lives to return to normal.

“Students are incredibly resilient, and I have no doubt that they will come out of this time so much stronger than they went into it,” says Mendoza. “But the stress right now is really heavy and hard, and it’s going to take some time.”

Measuring the Cost of a Pandemic School Year

In the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year, nearly half of secondary students in St. Paul Public Schools—who were in distance learning until April 2021—failed a class, an uptick of more than two and a half times the rate of the previous year. Students of color were more than twice as likely to fail a class as their white classmates.

Far from being purely an academic evaluation, experts say these failing grades tell stories of underlying emotional distress and feelings of isolation. In fact, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that in the first half of 2020, hospital emergency departments reported a rise in visits from kids for mental health needs, including suicide attempts. Overdoses were up, as were reports of depression and anxiety.

Spotting Stress in the Youngest

Unlike teenagers, the most important factor in younger children’s mental health—especially preschool age kids—is the relationship between the parents and their child. That’s because young children use their parents’ emotional cues to regulate themselves. If the pandemic is causing stress and anxiety in a parent or caregiver, it’s likely caused stress and anxiety in the child, too. Typical warning signs that a young child may be in distress include a change or disruption in sleeping patterns, acting out, or being defiant in a way that goes beyond a typical preschool tantrum.

“When a parent thinks ‘I can’t emotionally support these children who rely on me,’” that’s a red flag, says Alyssa Meuwissen (Ph.D. ’17), a research associate at the Center for Early Education and Development at the U of M.

When the pandemic started, Meuwissen was seven months pregnant and the mother of a 2-year-old. Her husband, who is a physical therapist at a nursing home, contracted Covid-19 when their newborn was 6 weeks old.

“To take care of a 2-year-old who couldn’t stop talking and do any productive work, it was impossible to feel competent at either,” she says. “And that’s what, to me, is one of the biggest issues with this pandemic. Parents [were] being asked to take on even more of their childcare because there [was] no daycare or preschool, so parents [were] supporting their children 100 percent of the time.”

Meuwissen recommends that parents who feel overwhelmed get support, possibly through Early Childhood Family Education groups, many of which transitioned to online offerings during the pandemic.

You can find these resources at fam/elsprog/ECFE/.

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