Graphic via Tania Lili for COURIER School in a Pandemic
Graphic via Tania Lili for COURIER

The coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of at least 124,000 public and private K-12 schools, affecting more than 55 million students. Hundreds of colleges have also closed. 

To say Emily Williams has had her life turned upside down in recent weeks would be putting it mildly. 

A 7th grade math teacher at Amana Academy in Alpharetta, Georgia, Williams is among the millions of educators around the United States whose job description changed almost overnight because of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of teaching students in brick-and-mortar classrooms and answering questions in person, Williams, 30, has been separated from her students and forced to educate them using an online-only curriculum. 

“We are 100% virtual,” Williams said. “We’re not allowed to go into the school building and the kids aren’t either, so we are doing everything online, whether it’s recording lessons, doing live Google Hangouts with our kids, or submitting all the homework through Google Classroom.” 

Williams begins each morning by posting a video of herself that functions as a sort of “morning message.” She also holds one-hour office hours on Google Hangout to answer questions and offer additional support to students who may be struggling being stuck at home. 

The transition has not been easy.

“It is gut-wrenching,” Williams said. “I started the office hours and this one kid, who’s kind of been one of our struggle bunnies and has had a hard year, logged in just to talk. We had a conversation, and we’re just chatting like normal people. You can just tell how bored some of these kids are.”

That student, Williams said, was initially excited by the prospect of going home and relaxing after school was closed, but has since grown antsy being stuck indoors. “Kids are so dependent on the adults in their life, and now that so many community centers, like the YMCA or wherever they would go to hang out—those are all closed, so there’s no outlet for them,” Williams said.

Williams is far from alone in facing these challenges. The coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of at least 124,000 public and private schools in the United States, affecting more than 55 million students, according to a tally from Education Week. Almost overnight, students, parents, and teachers have found themselves forced to adapt to a pandemic that has had not just academic consequences, but social, emotional, and mental health ones as well.

But Williams and her students are some of the lucky ones. Amana Academy was already using technology regularly prior to the pandemic, and the school even offered to deliver Chromebook laptops to students who needed them to do their work from home. 

Many students aren’t so fortunate. As the New York Times reported this week, more students than ever are missing class, especially those who come from lower-income families or live in rural areas and may not have access to computers or the Internet at home. Educators told the Times that some students and their parents have dropped out of touch with schools completely as they struggle with the broader economic and health effects of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Williams knows how lucky she is to not be dealing with that. “That was really a blessing in disguise,” she said of her school’s existing access to and use of technology.

‘It’s a scary time for a student anywhere’

In speaking to educators and experts, it became clear that their students, while struggling to some degree to adapt academically, are having far more trouble with the psychological and emotional implications of virtual learning and being stuck at home.

“The fact that they’re not able to go to school is something that will certainly have an impact academically, but that’s something we potentially could remediate,” said Erin Barton, an associate professor in the Department of Special Education at Vanderbilt University. “I think the bigger impact is going to be on children’s mental health and how we help them get through this trauma of having all of these changes.” 

Barton, whose research focuses on learning and development and social and emotional health, said it’s difficult to predict what will happen to these children in the long run because “there’s a lot we don’t know.” The long-term impacts are likely to depend on how long the existing social distancing guidelines remain in place. But she said that many children may already be experiencing distress. 

“Children are in homes, away from their friends, away from structure, away from routine, and in homes where families are also experiencing additional stress,” Barton explained. “You know, lots of families may have lost their jobs, lots of parents may have reduced hours—there are families who are struggling with all sorts of financial issues.”

Even families who are more fortunate and are still working are now dealing with the added stress of watching their children during the day. Williams’ students are among those who have had their entire routines upended. In many cases, their ability to learn now depends on their parents’ schedules and ability to communicate with teachers. Some students now have to wait until their parents finish their workdays to start on their schoolwork, while others have suddenly had a lot more responsibility pushed onto them. “For middle schoolers, many of them are the babysitters now,” Williams said. 

According to the World Health Organization, children are “likely to be experiencing worry, anxiety and fear.” They may express this fear through irritability and anger, or by a desire to be closer to their parents and ask more of them. The CDC notes that children may also develop unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, develop unexplained headaches or body pain, or have difficulty concentrating. Younger children may also cry excessively or return to behaviors they had outgrown, such as bedwetting, while teenagers may begin “acting out” or begin using alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs. 

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This sort of upheaval and sudden pressure on children can cause trauma and have significant long-term consequences. Children’s brains are still developing and studies have shown that childhood trauma can lead to an increase in the size of the amygdala, the brain’s emotional response center, as well as heightened activity in the amygdala. This heightened level of anxiety, fear, and stress during childhood can increase the risk of anxiety disorders, depression, and PTSD as an adult.

One 2013 study published in Cambridge University Press compared children and their parents who were put in quarantine during pandemic disasters to those who were not and found that post-traumatic stress scores were four times higher in children who had been quarantined than children who weren’t. 

“I worry a lot about the mental health impact on young children, and I think that it will depend on lots of things,” Barton said. “It will depend on the stress that their families are experiencing. I think it will depend on what resources their family can access. And then it will also depend on whether or not their caregivers are able to continue to provide nurturing and responsive homes.”

It’s not just students in the U.S. who are struggling with uncertainty and anxiety amid the pandemic. Islen Craig teaches fourth grade at the International School of Tianjin in China, where the coronavirus first began spreading in January. In the more than two months since China began its nationwide lockdown, Craig, a 33-year-old New York native, has moved her classes online.

In that time, Craig has watched as her students in China struggle to deal with their parents’ stress. “It’s a scary time for a student anywhere,” she said. “They can see that their parents are stressed about certain things.”

Teachers and schools counselors typically help students process some of the emotional stress they might experience in their day-to-day lives, and going to school and being around their peers can provide children an outlet to express themselves. But with schools now closed, nearly the entire burden is falling on parents, who are already being pushed to their breaking point weeks into what could be a months-long crisis. 

A recent study by the University of Michigan found that 52% of American parents said that self-isolating and financial worries were getting in the way of their parenting. A majority of parents (61%) also reported shouting, yelling, and screaming at their children at least once since isolating in their homes, while 19% said they were screaming more and 15% said they had increased their use of discipline during the pandemic.

‘There’s nothing usual about this’

Young students aren’t the only ones experiencing trauma due to the pandemic. U.S. colleges have also shut down and moved their classes online, which has forced most college students to move off campus and, in many cases, back in with their families. Boston College was one of the first schools to cancel classes when it announced on March 11 that it was moving courses online. 

At first, students were “pretty shocked,” said Eileen Donovan-Kranz, associate professor of English at Boston College. “Students were really thrown into every emotion possible. Grief, you know, and confusion.”

Donovan-Kranz admits adjusting from a classroom, discussion-oriented model to online has been overwhelming. Classes of 100 students or more just don’t translate well to Zoom, she said. 

“What I’ve been advocating with the program that I direct is that we really consider this triage. This is triage teaching. This is not online teaching, this is triage teaching,” she said. “We have to figure out what our key components are, what we most want and need our students to get out of their courses and out of their content areas in order to move them along to the next step or the next course or just to fulfill that basic course requirement.”

Her teaching approach is in part driven by the fact that her students are dealing with those types of issues. “There’s so much anxiety and this is not irrational anxiety,” she said. Some students are struggling to adapt to moving back in with their parents, which makes it harder for them to focus on schoolwork.

Others, meanwhile, are finding themselves in the opposite situation. “A lot of students have returned home and have family members who are working in the healthcare industry,” Donovan-Kranz said. “One of my students, it’s just her and her mom and she’s alone about 22 hours a day. Her mother is just out and she’s alone in this time and she’s really looked forward to our Zoom meetings because it’s a way of keeping community.”

Donovan-Kranz has encouraged her students to talk to and support each other, but it’s clear these sudden changes are taking a toll. “I’m finding that I’m doing not only triage teaching, but also emotional triage with students,” she said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this, and all of it is apart from what our usual teaching responsibilities would be, I would say. There’s nothing usual about this.”

‘Home can be home’

While there’s no perfect solution for any of these issues, many of which vary based on family situations, Barton urged parents to find a way to manage and mitigate the stress their young children are experiencing. One way to do so, she said, is to implement a routine. 

“By that I don’t mean that everything needs to happen at the same time every day, but some sort of order of events throughout the day so that children start to understand, ‘Within my day, things are going to be at least somewhat predictable,’” she explained. “We know that can be really helpful for young children … If some of their day is predictable, then it perhaps allows them to process what’s going on and to engage in the environment in a more meaningful way.”

Barton also stressed that parents shouldn’t put too much pressure on their children or worry about creating a learning environment at home that mirrors the one at school.

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“I just don’t think that’s going to be possible and I worry that that creates some additional stress for families and children, which isn’t helpful right now,” she said. “I really want to stress to parents that they don’t need to create a home environment that looks like school. Home can stay like home. Home can be home.”

Most importantly, she said, parents should have conversations with their kids about how they’re feeling. “My biggest piece of advice is to let children express their feelings and their concerns and their fears.”

It’s unclear when schools and colleges will reopen. An increasing number of states have announced schools will remain closed for the remainder of this academic year, but the next academic year also remains a question mark. No one knows if or when exactly the worst of the coronavirus will pass and whether American society will reopen in 2020. Some experts have indicated the nation will need to maintain social distancing until a vaccine for the virus is ready in 12 to 18 months.

That uncertainty and the challenges that come with teaching students in this environment hangs over all three educators. “Sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated to do this work because it’s just so different and so uncomfortable right now,” Williams said. 

But, she added, she and many other educators have found themselves pleasantly surprised with how their students have handled this crisis. When kids are “put in these difficult situations, they do really have the ability to be really resilient and open to change.”