It will take years for us to understand just how deeply students’ lives have been impacted by COVID. While testing may give us an inkling into what the academic impact has been, these tests cannot gauge the toll of ongoing COVID for students’ mental health and their ability to thrive. While we may not have hard data yet, the anecdotal evidence from teachers and those who work with children in the schools is that students are struggling with chronic anxiety.
Peace Ed staff have been back in schools since the fall of 2021 working to help teachers and students navigate the “new” normal of education during COVID. Durk Davidson facilitates Navigators groups at eight schools, while Carrie Christensen and Brenda Moorman have been visiting kindergarten through seventh grade classes to teach conflict resolution workshops. They have also done some professional development for teachers and administrators.
Teachers and students are, by and large, exhausted. With COVID being on their minds and in the news constantly since March 2020, it is the allostatic load on their lives, which is the cumulative burden of stress on the mind and body. Peace Ed staff has always spent time chatting with teachers to figure out how best to help students, but Carrie Christensen says, “There’s a lot more time checking in with teachers [now], but I feel less able to figure out how to support them.”
Students lost school time to non-traditional instruction (NTI), some for longer periods than others, but COVID has changed the way they participate in school with peers or do extracurricular activities and this has had an impact on their emotional and social development. “Eighth graders are having a hard time this year, having two years of middle school disrupted. The kids are developmentally not where they normally would be,” Carrie says.
Peace Ed workshops with students and teachers have been essential to giving all involved an opportunity to talk about how they are feeling. “The kids have been very hungry for conflict resolution conversations, especially the emotional piece,” Carrie says. “I don’t know that we’re giving kids enough time to process what’s going on.” Teachers, themselves, have been more involved in classroom workshop conversations which Carrie has found interesting and definitely not the norm from previous years. “They need that conversation, too,” she says.
Carrie talks about the Anger Thermometer in emotional conflict with students and has noticed how much anxiety and fear are part of the conversation now. “That’s new. Every class has mentioned being worried, even kindergarteners. And as we know, anxiety still shows up as anger in a lot of kids,” she says. “We’ve done a lot of work on strategies to get yourself calm.”
Games have always been a part of the work Peace Ed does, but Carrie has had to switch from doing games at the end of her programming to starting her workshops with them. “I realized I had to figure out a way to get students’ attention and get them back in their bodies,” she says. She had anticipated that kids would be full of energy and bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm once they were all back in school, but what she has found instead is a sense of dullness. Some of this may be due to masks, but some of it may be due to the chronic stress everyone in the community has been under even though we have returned to something like normal.
By Carrie Vittitoe