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Kids’ mental health can struggle during online school

When her South Carolina high school went online this spring, Maya Green struggled through the same emotions as many of her fellow seniors: She missed her friends. Her online assignments were too easy. She struggled to stay focused.

But Green, 18, also found herself working harder for the teachers who knew her well and cared about her.

“My school doesn’t do a ton of lessons on social and emotional learning,” said Green, who just graduated from Charleston County School of the Arts, a magnet school, and is headed to Stanford University. “But I grew up in this creative writing program, and I’m really close to my teachers there, and we had at least one purposeful conversation about my emotions after we moved online.” From the other teachers, Green didn’t hear much to support her mental health.

This was a common complaint among parents when classes went online in March to stem the spread of coronavirus. With the sudden halt to in-person learning, many students missed their friends, yearned to be out of the house, developed erratic sleep habits and drove their (often, working) parents crazy. On top of that, many were dealing with the trauma of sick or dying family members, economic hardship and disruption to the life they once had. As the pandemic drags on, it’s clear that not all kids are all right. Nearly 3 in 10 parents said their child is experiencing emotional or mental harm because of social distancing and school closures, according to a nationwide Gallup poll in June.

“‘Unmoored’ is the best way I can describe it,” said Michael Rich, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. He’s seen a rise in young patients with anxiety and depression during the pandemic.

“They don’t feel like getting up and going to another Zoom class,” Rich said. “They don’t feel like finishing their college applications.” As more districts are electing to start the school year virtually, teachers will have to get better at delivering new academic content online while also meeting students’ social and emotional needs.

Schools, Rich said, should think about using the virtual environment to create new relationships between teachers and students.

“Not just one where kids can get help with algebra, but where kids are talking to teachers about what’s going on.”

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