Original article written by Clem Richardson for City & State New York
The pandemic continues to weigh heavily on the mental health of the city’s 1.1 million school children, their parents and especially on the teachers charged with keeping them on academic track. Deaths of friends and loved ones, new variants and the possibility of infection they bring, changes in protocols like mask wearing or isolation time after infection, and the endless debates about in-person or remote learning are just some of the issues impacting school communities.
Teachers must deal with these stresses and a variety of other issues, from covering for sick or absent colleagues and keeping often absent students on academic schedule, as well as the pre-pandemic issues found in all schools, like food insecurity in student homes and parental abuse, which can be exacerbated by at home learning in close quarters. For those and other reasons, mental health has become an even more important issue in schools.
Hundreds of anxious New York City public school students walked out of class on Jan. 11 to demand that online classes be offered to those who wanted to stay at home. The students cited teacher absences and the fear of widespread infection from the omicron variant of COVID-19 among their reasons for wanting remote classes. “Students have faced immense challenges over the course of the pandemic, and many have been impacted by the pain, stress and trauma the pandemic has caused New Yorkers,” said Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesperson Victoria Merlino.
How New York City plans to deal with such issues is not known at this time. The Adams administration and the Department of Education did not respond to numerous emails seeking comment on how the pandemic is driving mental health issues affecting the city’s school children. However, the United Federation of Teachers Associate Executive Director for United Community Schools ,Christine Schuch, spoke about what members are seeing in the city’s community schools, schools that remain open longer than regular public schools and offer more social services. “In elementary schools, students are experiencing anxiety and fear,” Schuch said. “There is the stress of walking into a school and not feeling entirely safe. Then you have the students who have experienced great loss, and a lot of disruption, as we all have, but it manifests differently with children...In middle schools and high schools, there is still stress and anxiety and trauma as well as a little uptick in violence and in suicidal thoughts. Some of the stresses are kind of leveling off now, but you add returning to school while dealing with a new variant, and there is more stress,” she added.
Community schools have also increased counseling for school staff, offering the same social and emotional programming the students and families receive. “We’ve been having a lot more meetings to check in and see how the staff are doing, and make sure they get the space and time to take care of themselves,” she said.
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