Students around the world learned a harsh lesson in 2020: pandemics can have devastating impacts on lives, economies, and schools. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, schools closed, academic terms were truncated, routines were broken, and uncertainty and anxiety permeated students’ home and social lives. Many school systems considered how best to reopen and weighed physical health and safety measures, but school psychology and security experts cautioned not to discount students’ state of mind.
Most teachers and school officials acknowledge there is a typical re-adjustment and relearning period for students after any break—whether it’s a three-month summer vacation, a two-week holiday, or even a snow day. The first few weeks of term are often spent reviewing lessons from the previous year.
However, the series of events related to the COVID-19 pandemic are decidedly different. Schools had to shift gears quickly—often with limited resources—to prepare for virtual learning instead of classroom education. In the United States, school buses were reconfigured to deliver school lunches or Wi-Fi to students at home. Academic performance was frequently judged on a pass–fail system, and students were isolated from their friends, peers, and role models at developmentally critical times.
Students are also at additional risk during the pandemic due to potential parental unemployment, food or housing uncertainty, financial stresses, or illness or death in the family, says Dr. Franci Crepeau-Hobson, an associate professor and director of clinical training at the University of Colorado Denver School of Psychology. Crepeau-Hobson is also cochair of the National Association of School Psychologists’ School Safety and Crisis Response Committee.
“Folks who were already stable, had some resiliencies, and had some really strong support systems are going to weather this adequately well,” she says. “But those kids who were already vulnerable are the ones we’re going to have to be the most concerned about, whether that was because of a preexisting mental health challenge, a disability, or what was going on at home.”
Thirty-two percent of California students in grades 5-12 who were not receiving mental health services felt they may need them during and after the pandemic, according to a survey by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California in late April 2020.
Before COVID-19, 65 percent of students rated their mental wellness—defined for the survey as the ability to cope with the normal stresses of life and work productively—at 7 or above on a 10-point scale. But at the end of April, less than 40 percent of students rated their mental wellness at the same level; 23 percent of students rated their mental wellness at 3 or lower, signaling a need for action and assistance.