By Hayley Rea and Caitlyn Kiser--Eagle Staff Writers
“The transition to virtual and hybrid schooling has been necessary to protect the physical health of students and their families. However, there has been a great impact on student’s mental health during the pandemic. Since March, I have seen increased anxiety, depression, and a sense of isolation in teenagers across the area,” explained Stacy Louthan, a licensed counselor at SEL Counseling.
Many mental health specialists have identified specific areas in the lives of adolescents that may suffer due to a lack of interaction.
“Isolation and physical distancing is creating loneliness, depression, poor motivation, poor nutrition, sleep problems, family dynamics issues, self harming behaviors, suicide ideation in other teens, especially those who enjoy being popular or are extroverted,” said Kay Montgomery, a licensed social worker at A Connecting Thread.
There has been much concern about how the consequences of COVID have hindered the social growth of students on campus as well.
“This particular age, the high school age, is one of the most social times in an adolescent’s life. Students should be experiencing great social development. But, due to the quarantines and isolations that our students are experiencing, there are limited opportunities for socialization right now,” explained Samantha Strong, a social worker on campus.
Many students are unable to communicate with their friends and family face-to-face and have been forced to find other ways to meet these social needs.
“Students no longer have their social needs met by interacting with teachers, coaches and other students; therefore their ability to communicate effectively is hindered,” said Susan Boyes, a licensed counselor at The Manassas Group.
Social media has always provided a source of communication and interaction for adolescents, but the benefits of this can be controversial.
“There are certainly mixed reviews on the role social media may play in this area. Social media outlets can be a positive support at times, but this is not the case for everyone. Not all students have the same access to socialization opportunities or social media outlets,” Strong commented.
In addition, some physical deficits for students have also been seen due to the constant changes in the school environment.
“Many teens have changed their sleep patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic, so they have become more nocturnal - staying up late and sleeping in. The transition back to regular school hours is challenging in these situations,” replied Laura Boyd Farmer, a self employed licensed counselor.
Some professionals have also raised concerns about students’ physical health in regards to their immunity when not exposed to outside contaminants.
“I am also concerned about how virtual school and the lack of social interactions will impact kids' immune systems as they are not being exposed to normal virus bugs to develop a natural immunity. I predict that when we begin to mingle normally again that we will be very vulnerable to germs that we would have previously developed antibodies toward to resist illness and there will be a lot of sick kids as a result,” predicted Boyes.
In these situations, it may be clear to those who spend time around teens that classroom learning can have more beneficial effects on their mental and physical state.
"A child's learning capabilities are super enhanced when all senses are engaged, such as learning in a classroom with professional teachers. Schools are best prepared and designed for a child's developing brain,” explained Angela Mitchell, a licensed social worker at Child & Family Therapy Associates.
However, not all counselors in the area have seen these changes as completely negative experiences for students concerning their learning capabilities.
“Planned and managed well, virtual can certainly work to some degree. In fact, it might be better for many to be able to self-pace through many of their lessons. Students, families and the school system itself may benefit and find teenagers become more accountable, confident and goal focused when virtual and in-person becomes balanced, sustainable and easily accessible,” Montgomery observed.
Some students find that virtual and hybrid learning provides a bit of relief from the stress of school and the demanding atmosphere it can create.
“There have been mixed emotions regarding school. People with social anxiety or a history of being bullied have seen virtual school as a breath of fresh air,” said Deb Aguilar, a licensed counselor at The Refuge Counseling.
However, many counselors are in unified agreement that the lack of structure and scheduling has hindered students’ ability to function in the same ways they did before COVID.
“I will say in general, the COVID crisis has taken away some of the basic things that help us all cope effectively with life stressors - things like structured schedules, in-person interactions with our friends and extended family, and just the normal, predictable routines of life,” a representative at Break Forth Counseling replied.
For those students with less than adequate home lives, being at home more has caused greater barriers for them compared to those with a strong support system.
“Is there a parent or sibling available to assist the student who is struggling?” questions Boyes. “If not, the student is likely to feel stupid and to give up resulting in their getting further behind in their assignments.”
These transitions have also hindered the ability of faculty on campus to identify with students in the same ways.
“We’re not ‘seeing’ students daily. A combination of our hybrid schedule, virtual periods and some students choosing all virtual, we’re not able to have the typical day to day interactions. For example, in a normal year, we would notice if the normal smile and good morning greeting didn’t elicit a typical response and could immediately follow up,” commented Strong. “We have sometimes gone weeks to months without seeing students face to face and we’re not able to pick up on those previously normal body cues.”
There is a lot of fear and uncertainty circulating our community. Many licensed professionals in nearby districts are inviting students to seek help during this time.
“If you are experiencing any depression or anxiety I urge you to reach out to a trusted adult,” Louthan concluded.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255