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Learning During a Global Pandemic

This post is Part 2 of a three-part collaborative series on COVID-era teaching and mental health. To see Part 1, click here.

What if we were to tell you that according to the World Health Organization, mental health conditions account for 16%, or the fourth leading cause of the global burden of disease and injury in people 10-19 years of age? Would it surprise you to know that nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness, accounting for approximately 51.5 million people? Perhaps you would be shocked to learn that over 50% of all mental health issues begin before the age of 14? Statistically, this would mean that over 25 million citizens of the United States began their struggle with mental health before they truly stepped into a high school classroom.

“Anxiety is the ninth leading cause for adolescents aged 15-19 years and sixth for those aged 10-14 years” (data from World Health Organization).  Emotional disorders in adolescents typically affect areas in daily life and put an increased strain on tasks important for schoolwork and school attendance. In extreme cases social withdrawal can make the feelings of isolation and loneliness much worse, and this depression can unfortunately lead to suicide.

These numbers show mental health as a nationwide epidemic that has silently taken hold of our youth and begun to create a generation void of self-efficacy, self-respect, self-esteem, and tenacity. What is most interesting about the statistics we have referenced is that each data point is taken from 2019 and earlier. We must understand that in a pre-pandemic world, the issue of mental health was worsening for many of our students. View this same issue through the lens of COVID-19, and the picture begins to tell a very important story.

Let’s take a look into the lives of two students to see how the additional emotional burden has increased during COVID-19:

ELEMENTARY PRE-PANDEMIC:

Imagine 7 year old Destiny. As she arrives at school on the bus, she is greeted with smiles by her principal and reminders about how to walk in the hallway. She is distracted by concerns about her parents’ divorce. She wonders if the fighting will ever stop, if she caused their problems, and if they will get back together if she behaves. Suddenly, she hears her name. Destiny is reminded to walk on the right side of the hallway.

Destiny quickly complies and heads to class. She anxiously awaits her turn to greet her smiling teacher with a hug! In that moment, Destiny feels safe.

While at lunch in the cafeteria, Destiny watches while the other parents come to eat with their kids. She is unable to understand her jealousy of these healthy parents and her longing for focused attention. From this complex emotion, Destiny is unable to finish her lunch.

Recess begins and she is relieved. She usually plays with Kiara from another class, but today Samatha wants to play with her. Destiny is forced to choose. In a sudden fit of rage, Destiny shouts in anger. This emotion shocks her friends and even surprises Destiny. She does not mean to explode like that. She decides to cool off and play on the playground structure. While playing, she accidentally bumps her head. Destiny runs to her teacher crying, telling her what happened while in the loving arms of her hug.

ELEMENTARY PANDEMIC:

Now imagine 7 year old Destiny during a pandemic in plan A, in-person five days a week with masks and social distancing. As she arrives at school on the bus with a mask, she is stopped by a team of people in masks. They hold a thermometer up to her forehead and ask her lots of questions. They allow her into the school, with directions to use the hand sanitizer and strict reminders about the new safety procedures from COVID-19. She is completely overwhelmed with concerns about her parents’ divorce and the health risk of being at school. Destiny is aware that her dad is asthmatic and is at high risk. She has overheard many fights about if she should go to school in person or stay virtual. The tensions have been astronomical. Suddenly, she hears her name. Destiny is reprimanded for her mask falling below her nose.

Destiny anxiously awaits her turn to greet her teacher, who is trying to smile under her mask. She used to greet her teacher with a hug, but now has to settle for an “air hug.” She feels lonely.

Destiny listens intently as her teacher explains how lunch will be in plan A. She learns that they will be eating in the classroom with their masks off. Destiny wants to ask questions, but her teacher is busy sanitizing desks and teaching everyone how to properly wash their hands. Destiny suddenly thinks about her dad’s high health risk. She would be devastated if she got her dad sick. She tries to follow all the safety routines to keep herself and her parents healthy. Destiny tries to eat but is unable to eat much. She quickly puts on her mask.

It is time for recess. Her teacher explains that they are going to have isolated play to be socially distant for safety. Destiny desperately wants to play with her friend Kiara from another class. She hasn’t seen Kiara in months due to virtual school. Once outside, she feels disappointed, isolated, and frustrated with all the new routines in place. Destiny gets her turn on the slide, and she accidentally bumps her head. She wants to run to her teacher; however, she has to wait in her zone. Through her tears, Destiny tries to lean in for a hug. Her teacher avoids her touch. This instantly breaks her heart. Destiny longs for a hug through her tears and ill-fitting mask.

HIGH SCHOOL PRE-PANDEMIC:

As he stares in the mirror, Erick tries his best to finish up the last bit of his morning routine before heading to school. He hears his mom call from downstairs,“Erick!!” she yells, “Get down here now!! We’ve gotta go. You’re going to make your little sister late!”  As he approaches the bottom steps, he realizes he left his novel for his AP Language class upstairs. “Shoot. I’ll be right back,” he yells as he hops up the stairs. “You have an alarm! Why do we have to deal with this every morning? You know I’ve taken longer shifts at the hospital and…”

“Same speech, different morning.“ Erick thinks as he gets  out of earshot of his mother’s voice. “Things were easier with Dad around. I wish they would end these 6 month tours for military personnel who have multiple children at home.” Erick grabs the book and heads downstairs. “Are we picking up Ben on the way?” Erick says as he goes through the door. Ben has been Erick’s closest friend since he and his family moved to North Carolina this summer from his family's last duty station. If it weren’t for Ben, he would be lost. This is Erick’s fourth high school in 3 years, and even though his Dad promised this would be the last, making new friends never gets easier. As the car pulls up to Ben’s house, Ben stands outside with a huge smile on his face. Ben is taller for his age and super slim, which helps Erick, who is 6’ 4” himself, not feel as out of place. They spent the entire summer playing basketball in the backyard, prepping for the season. Erick hasn’t played on a team the past two years because his family moved before each season, so he’s excited to get a chance to try out for the varsity team. “Hey, folks. Thanks for the ride,” Ben comments.  Erick responds, “No problem. Thanks for letting me use your notes. This chem test is going to be the death of me.” Ben pulls out his phone. “No worries. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. My mom and I were just talking. I can’t believe college visits are coming up. We also have the NHS food drive this weekend, oh, and not to make things worse, but have you seen your Insta feed?” As Erick looks down at the phone, he feels his stomach drop. He looks at a photo of his girlfriend, Carson,  kissing the cheek of another guy from the basketball team.

This isn’t the first time he had been cheated on by someone else and he begins to wonder if he really was the problem in all of these relationships. He knows he needs to confront Carson at some point today. Sitting in AP Language, the world starts spinning. “I’m sorry Ms. Riggs, I really don’t feel good. Can I go to the bathroom?” Ms. Riggs nods and Erick quickly leaves. As he gets to the bathroom he can feel his heart racing. He feels like the walls are closing around him and that his lungs aren’t able to fill up with enough air.  He stays in the stall until the bell rings, attempting to calm himself before his chemistry test.

HIGH SCHOOL PANDEMIC:

As he stares in the mirror, Erick thinks about his school’s hybrid schedule and how going to school for two days while being home for 5 is not easy to get used to. Each in-person school morning feels harder and harder to get up and get going. Erick rolls his eyes at the thought as he hears his mom call from downstairs, “Erick!!” she yells, “Get down here now!! We’ve gotta go. You know how important my work is at the hospital, especially now…”

“Same speech, different morning.“ Erick thinks. “Things were easier with Dad around.” He knows things are tough for his mother. Because of the pandemic, his father hasn’t been able to travel further than 50 miles away from the D.C. base, which means he hasn’t seen him for 8 months. This coupled with his mom now working on the Coronavirus patient wing doubles his anxiety levels for the wellbeing of his family.  He has already been quarantined once and is just heading back now, so one more two -week stint out of school, and he is sure his GPA will take a nosedive. Erick heads downstairs. “ I forgot to text Ben to ask him for his notes,” Erick says as he goes through the door.  Unfortunately, Ben is in the A Cohort because of the last name split at school, and because of Erick’s mother’s job, the only time they could spend time together since the summer is online.

As the car drives past Ben’s house, Erick’s phone dings. It is Ben. Ben’s text says,  “Hey. Just sent you the notes. Not to make things worse, but have you seen the athletic update on your Insta feed?” As Erick opens the app and looks down at his phone, he can feel his stomach drop. He looks at an update from the athletic department indicating that tryouts for basketball season are postponed. Again.  He really wanted this to be the year that he finally got to play for a team. It would give him time to be with Ben. To be with anyone really.  “Don’t forget your mask,” Erick’s mom says as he gets out of the car. He brusquely pulls his mask out of his pocket and shows it to her before closing the door. As the car pulls off and Erick gets in line for temperature checks, he thinks, “What’s the point of all of this? School will shut down in another two weeks anyway…”

Sitting in AP Language, Erick's world is spinning. All he can think about is how lonely it all is. Even being in a classroom with ten other students isn’t the same as before. Erick can feel the pit in his stomach head up to his throat as his teacher, Ms. Riggs, calls on him. “Erick. What are your thoughts on the statement Chris just made about the theme of isolation in this story?” Erick can feel his breath getting shallower as he attempts to answer the teacher’s question. “Another failure”, he thinks. “I’m failing everything.” “I’m sorry Ms. Riggs, I really don’t feel good. Can I go to the bathroom?” Ms. Riggs nods and Erick quickly leaves. As he gets to the bathroom, he can feel his heart racing. This is the most isolated Erick has ever felt. He wants out. He does not want to experience this emptiness any longer. He feels like the walls are closing around him. He barely gets his mask off in time before he throws up.

One of our many goals as educators is to develop self-esteem in our students and to help them cope with change. We want students to believe in themselves, rise to their potential, and be successful. One of the primary ways in which we can begin to help build the esteem of our students is to focus on ways to communicate so they know  their value is important and their presence in our classroom is invaluable. Our students are experiencing growing concerns of safety/health, grief (lost experiences), and isolation. We must build the bridge to normalcy by improving the ways in which we interact with each of our students.

Next Steps: Educator Communication

We have always needed to address the paradigm of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with our students. With the additional load of pandemic-level health concerns, all of our students are experiencing higher levels of stress and vulnerability in the initial physiological level. Students, in all age groups, are able to instinctively glean the emotions and concerns of adults around them. Even at the youngest of ages, our students understand the gravity of all the changes in our society. As much as adults try to shield their innocents, children have taken on an additional burden of stress.

According to research, communication in the classroom is essential. Communication has three elements that teachers need to master themselves to promote healthy communication in students.

  1. The first is the most obvious communication: verbal. Choose your words wisely as an educator and role model.
  2. The next element is non-verbal communication. This is our body language, proximity, gestures, and facial expressions. As  teachers, we need to be mindful of how we hold ourselves. Do we point aggressively when we are explaining the new COVID-19 procedures in the building? Do we constantly look concerned at school because of our never ending to-do list? Do we walk around with our shoulders slumped because we are worn down? All of these actions, although natural for a human under stress, communicate loads to our students. Think about how we can communicate that we are capable of keeping the students safe and healthy at school and help alleviate some of their stress.
  3. The last, most nuanced and often overlooked is paraverbal communication. This is the tone, cadence and volume of our voice when we speak. It is how we say something, not what we say. The tone of how someone says something can greatly affect the response. Try saying this aloud:
"It is good to see you.”

Now say it with genuine excitement. “It is good to see you!”

Say it like you are annoyed. “It is good to see you.”

Try it with a tired voice. “It is good to see you.”

We could go on. It is the same words being said, but the tone alters the message.

Thinking consciously about the speed, volume, and most importantly, tone of our speech can help us in the classroom and in our personal lives, especially in an era when masks cover smiles and voices carry more meaning than ever.

We want to encourage our students to process complex emotions and work towards healing. This can be as simple as teacher communication and being intentional role models for our students . We want to support our students’ mental health through this challenging time so we can help the Destinys and Ericks in our lives. Sixteen percent of the students we teach each day were experiencing mental health issues before the global pandemic, and now 100% of our students are experiencing trauma caused by COVID-19. As educators, our focus should be on providing. What experience can we create? What joy can we exude? What smile can we provide to our students and families in need? The emotions experienced during this pandemic are confusing and messy. We must understand that many days we will not be able to give as much of ourselves as we are used to, and that is okay. Our one hundred percent will be different each day, but we must focus on doing our best to provide what we can for the students we love.


Daniel Scott is the 2020 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Southwest Regional Teacher of the Year, and Leanne Rose is the 2019 North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching Beginning Teacher of the Year. Daniel and Leanne are NC public school teachers. Daniel is the Band Director at Swansboro High School, and Leanne is a second grade teacher at Park View Elementary School. Both have had the opportunity to experience, firsthand, the stress students feel at school. Through the transition phases of in-person, hybrid, and remote learning due to COVID 19, Daniel and Leanne have been able to reflect on the varied effects on high school and elementary students.





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