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Kids Returning To School After Isolation With Mental Health Concerns

Rashawn McCraney (left) meets with a student in his office at Firestone Community Learning Center in Akron. School counselors like McCraney have had to adjust to meet students unique mental health challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. [Daniel Sandy / Firestone Community Learning Center]]
Rashawn McCraney (left) meets with a student in his office at Firestone Community Learning Center in Akron. School counselors like McCraney have had to adjust to meet students unique mental health challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. [Daniel Sandy / Firestone Community Learning Center]]

Many Ohio children are finally heading back to in-person schooling this spring after a year of virtual learning, but the stress and isolation from the pandemic have created mental health concerns that kids are bringing with them back to the classroom. 

School counselors across the state have had to adjust to meet these unique new student needs.

"They were hesitant to engage because they were so alone," said Rashawn McCraney, counselor at Firestone Community Learning Center in Akron. "There's situations where students needed help and they may not have wanted to ask or did not really see the value in asking because ... it's going to be virtual anyway."

Psychologists who work with students in Cleveland-area school districts have had to adjust their services as well. MetroHealth psychologists used to meet with students in-person to teach them about stress coping strategies and mental health, but these sessions have shifted to virtual due to the pandemic.

In a recent session for students at Cleveland's Lincoln West High School, MetroHealth psychologist Lisa Ramirez explained how stress can affect teens' brain function and mood, and asked the students to recall any differences in their mood and physical well-being that they have experienced during the pandemic.

In the chat, students wrote about brain fog and getting headaches from staring at computer screens all day.

"We have had to look at more screens than ever before," Ramirez said.

MetroHealth psychologist Lisa Ramirez educates students on coping skills during a virtual "Wellness Wednesday" session for Lincoln West High School in Cleveland. [Zoom]

The students had their cameras turned off and participated in the discussions through the chat, which is typical, Ramirez said. It is hard to keep students engaged virtually in the several schools she works in, she said.

“There are many students that they perhaps may log on, perhaps for the academic piece of it, but they really don’t want to be engaging virtually with people they don’t know or haven’t seen in a group setting," she said. "It’s definitely put a lot of onus on being more engaging."

Zoom fatigue was a major issue for students across the state during the pandemic. In addition to academics and students’ well-being, McCraney worries that career readiness will also take a hit because of this.

The counselors used to hold after-school sessions about college and careers, but they had a hard time getting students to stay logged on for these activities.

"There was this sense from the students that, you know, they've done so much to stay connected with what they're learning, that all the extra opportunities just became one more thing that they had to log onto the computer to do," McCraney said.

McCraney and other counselors stepped up their outreach to students by increasing office hour time and making themselves readily available over email, phone, and digital tools like Google Meet.

Another way counselors can better reach students is to openly talk about mental health in regular classroom settings and give students tips for how to identify when they’re feeling burnt out or stressed, Ramirez at MetroHealth said.

“Having conversations in health classes, in as many groups of students as you can, saying, 'these are the things that you can expect to experience.' I think we have to start having more of those conversations instead of avoiding them because not having them doesn't make the mental health problems go away - it actually just pushes them to the side," she said.

Firestone counselors have already started doing this because students are still feeling the effects of a year of isolation, McCraney said.

“[We're] making sure that we have things in place that are proactive, not reactive. So, we’re in classrooms talking about wellbeing and safety, and I don’t see any of that going away once we’re into the fall,” he said.

Although most Ohio schools are back to in-person learning, some group settings are still not permitted because of social distancing measures. For activities that are still virtual, MetroHealth social worker RJ Rivera recommends taking a personal approach with the students to help keep them engaged.

"One of the takeaways for me is having a more targeted approach," Rivera said. "Fostering individual relationships, being interactive … showing videos, playing games, doing icebreakers.”

Ramirez recommends counselors and educators connect with students by talking about their interests and relating them to the lessons and guidance they are teaching.

"I've kind of had to accept things like Tik Tok dances," she said. "I feel like if I can try and connect with things that are interesting to them and allow that into the space ... then we can spend a little bit of time and I can connect with [them] the way that [they] want to."

These issues aren’t going to magically disappear now that students are back to in-person learning in most schools, Ramirez added. So, giving students tools to cope with stress and regularly checking in with them is crucial for the rest of the school year and into the fall.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.