As schools try to remain open during the pandemic, some students are struggling to adjust to in-person learning after months of isolation.
School disruptions have resulted in a sharp increase in mental health and behavioral issues among the youth, leaving parents and schools scrambling to find new ways to help students navigate the constantly changing routines in exceptionally stressful environments.
Some high schools, especially those located in underserved areas, have seen increased rates of violence between students amid the pandemic. During the fall semester last year, Southwood High School in Shreveport, Louisiana saw a week so violent that 23 students were arrested in just three days, according to CBS News.
After that week, some parents came together to create Dads On Duty (DOD), a group of dads and community leaders who takes turns spending time at the school to promote a positive environment.
Craig Lee of DOD told Verywell that negative influences in the community and popular culture, a lack of positive role models, and the instability of the pandemic created a "perfect storm” that led to the week of extreme violence last year.
Lee has dedicated his life to empowering underserved youth primarily in the African American community. He said the dads greet students in the morning, stroll around the school hallways to engage with them, share positive affirmations, and even tell dad jokes. The men are there to lend an ear or to offer advice when students are struggling.
While this may sound simple, the dads' firm yet comforting presence has been transformative for students who lack positive adult role models in their lives.
“The negativity has now switched to positive energy and there have been no more gang fights at the institution,” he said.
Thanks to the success of the initiative, Lee said, there are plans to expand the program to other communities and age groups, as well as to offer a number of other services and programs to empower young folks to be the best they can be.
Schools have to reinforce routines and expectations whenever in-person learning is disrupted by quarantine, according to Ashley Redfearn, CEO of American Paradigm Schools, a non-profit, charter management organization that supports and serves four charter schools in Philadelphia.
“We see students in second grade who have some of the same behaviors we would expect to see from incoming kindergarten students, such as challenges with being able to follow directions, taking turns in conversations, and completing assignments throughout the day,” Redfearn told Verywell.
She said the instability students are facing is also manifesting in the form of aggression at times as well as peer conflicts and defiance.
The Omicron surge is poised to have a major impact on students due to the likelihood of having to switch between virtual learning and in-person instruction. It may also create major staffing challenges, she added.
To minimize learning loss and absenteeism, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using test-to-stay practices to help keep students in school safely throughout the pandemic.
This strategy includes "promoting vaccination of eligible students and staff, requiring everyone age 2 and older wear a mask inside schools and facilities, keeping at least 3 feet of distance between students, screening testing, ventilation, hand washing, and staying home when sick," according to the CDC.
The agency also recommends that everyone ages 5 years and older get a COVID-19 vaccine to help protect against the virus, and those 12 years and older should get a booster shot at least five months after the primary series.
One of the APS schools has adopted the test-to-stay strategy, which has allowed for faster identification of positive cases within the school and for students to be rapidly tested.
Another school has been pool testing by identifying students and staff to be tested daily and using the results to extrapolate the probable case count within the school, which has been useful in determining if there's community spread within the school, Redfearn added.
“Both processes have allowed for schools and classrooms to stay open and provide the in-person learning that we know the students need,” she said.
Fatima Watt, PsyD, vice president and director of Behavioral Health Services at Franciscan Children’s, told Verywell that the loss of structure and access to peer support has been profound for students and is contributing to many mental health and developmental concerns.
“Children and teens require consistency and routines to function well, and this can be very difficult to maintain when school is closed,” Watt said. "Peer support interactions are critical for students of all ages, and isolation from peers due to remote learning can contribute to feelings of loneliness, sadness, low self-esteem, and depression.”
She added that schools should be proactive in reaching out to students who are withdrawn or appear to be struggling. Providing resources such as counseling is essential to ensuring students’ academic and personal success during the pandemic.
The APS faculty has been holding meetings for students to talk about their feelings and challenges, Redfearn said. Offering access to school breakfast and lunch also supports those who may experience food insecurity at home.
"Our goal is to help students socialize with one another through academic and social topics," she said. "Every day in-person is a race to give as much love and learning as possible.”
If you're a parent or you work in a school, you've likely noticed that kids are struggling more than usual due to disrupted routines and in-person learning. It's important to do everything possible to keep kids in school as long as it's safe, and both schools and parents can also get creative when it comes to finding ways to help students feel comforted and secure.
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