Will the Kids be OK?
After a year of enforced distance learning, educators worry about the long-term effects on childrens’ mental health.
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.
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
“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
“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
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 education.mn.gov/MDE/ fam/elsprog/ECFE/.