The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social isolation has hit many students especially hard.
“All the issues that kids normally deal with – mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, gender identification, hunger, tough home lives – isolation only makes them worse,” said Sam Rotella, superintendent of Southern Tioga School District. “The pandemic has really shown a spotlight on how important schools are in our society.”
Rotella and fellow Tioga County superintendents Dr. Diana Barnes of Northern Tioga and Dr. Brenda Freeman of Wellsboro Area school districts have spent the past year trying to minimize the effects of the global pandemic on students’ mental health and safety.
“For many children, school is the safest place to be. It’s our opportunity to keep an eye on kids,” said Barnes, adding this is especially difficult when school and extra-curricular activities are the only break from a difficult home situation for some students.
“Those students are with teachers and staff all day and then all of a sudden, they’re not. Those are crucial relationships,” she said. “Our social workers are very busy right now; they’re the ones making home contacts. We had kids who were seeing a social worker or psychologist every day or every other day; we’re still trying to maintain that contact and keep those channels of communication open.”
Rotella added kids having trouble at home, “isn’t always about good parents versus bad parents. A lot of parents are single or both are working. When you take this whole school routine out of their lives, the whole family structure is stressed.”
To provide students with more support, STSD hired a second school counselor using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief grant funds awarded to schools through the U.S. Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. The district also hired a social worker and has teachers responsible for reaching out to kids who don’t log on for remote learning.
Freeman said even students who didn’t previously exhibit mental health or home-life concerns are now needing extra help.
“The other aspect is some students who have been remote think they’re behind in school. This thought process often begins a downward spiral of depression,” she said. “When they’re in-person with their classmates, it’s easier. But being isolated, they don’t want anyone to know they’re struggling now, and they don’t realize it’s OK to be behind.”
Cameras added to every Wellsboro classroom allow students at home and see, hear and interact with their classmates in school. Teachers have also made changes to traditional school activities. For example, instead of handing out Valentines this year, Freeman said students took turns saying something nice about each of their classmates.
“It may seem small to us, but it’s big to them,” she said.
On top of these issues, some students aren’t getting basic everyday needs met by not being at school regularly.
“Food insecurity is a big issue in my district; 63-64% of our students receive free or reduced lunches so that’s an indication of how important attending school is for them,” said Barnes.
When remote learning is in session, all school districts have offered lunch pick-up programs. STSD and NTSD also send kids home with backpacks of food for the weekend, which the districts have done for several years.
To fulfill other needs, NTSD’s shoe bank offers a free pair of sneakers or snow boots to kids from newborns to age 18. New this year, students at Cowanesque Valley High School started “CV Closet,” which accepts donations of clothing, food, hygiene products and other items that are offered to all students.
“One of the biggest things has been pillows. Some kids don’t have pillows at home,” said Barnes.
She said younger kids especially have a tough time processing the concept of the pandemic and putting its severity into perspective.
“They hear adults talking about it, they hear things on the news and all this scary language. When someone gets sick, some kids automatically think their parents, their grandparents are going to die. When you have all that in conjunction with isolation, it affects how they think,” said Barnes, adding parents can help by being careful about the source of information and language they use. “Just be thoughtful about your conservations with or around them.”
Rotella said to further support kids during these times, it’s important for parents to “Spend time with them, talk to them, engage with them. If you’re unsure about something, reach out to us and we’ll connect you to the right resource.”
Freeman said open communication between parents, students and educators is important to combatting negative mental, emotional and social effects of the pandemic. It’s something the three superintendents have leaned on each other for, too.
“The fact we have each other makes a huge difference. It seems like almost daily there has been a tough decision to be made and it’s been great to just be able to call one or both of them to talk things through,” said Barnes.
Freeman added that the Tioga County COVID-19 Task Force and county officials including the commissioners, Senator Cris Dush and Rep. Clint Owlett have also helped.
“Everyone is tired. Parents are fatigued, teachers are fatigued, bus drivers are fatigued,” said Rotella. “But we’re showing how resilient we are and at the end of the day, Tioga County has come together and still needs to.”