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COVID takes toll on students' mental health – What WVEA members can do to help

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While everyone has been impacted by the events of the last 12 months, things have been particularly distressing for children and youth – perhaps even more so for those who already experience issues at home as so many West Virginia children do.

WVEA member Kim Browning is a school counselor for preschool through 2nd grade students in Mason County. He says this pandemic has been especially hard for the youngest of our students.

“Their world is so small and the amount of people that they know, it is almost like they are experiencing a death. Their friends are all gone. Many of these children live in apartments so not only do they miss their friends, but they also miss a decent place to play.”

Browning says the educators he works with did a wonderful job at making the switch to virtual classrooms. However, he found trying to have virtual sessions with students to be very difficult.

“I couldn’t tell who was off camera and what was affecting them, like maybe some intimidation going on. Maybe they wanted to tell me something but that person is there so I can’t really talk about it.”

Even now, “as students come in the door in the morning, I can see a little bit of interaction with the parents,” he added. “They speak to me and they are happy or they’re not, they are crying and you can see they have had a hard night, they have the same clothes on.”

A Centers for Disease Control study found that beginning in April 2020, children’s mental health-related emergency room visits increased and remained elevated through October. Specifically, compared to 2019 the proportion of mental health–related visits for children aged 5–11 increased by 24% and for children ages 12-17 it increased by 31%.

Educators know the importance of mental health for learning and for a normal, healthy life. Browning says that as things begin to move back to normal, that is what is best for children.

“The best thing is we are going to have them four or five days a week for the next several weeks. No more floods, no more ice storms, no snow days. Six weeks of just school. I think this will help with the beginning of school next year,” he noted.

So, what can parents and educators do to help their students deal with everything that has happened over the past year? Browning says it is extremely important to watch what you say.

“Children are very perceptive. The fact that adults are out of work is devastating to a family, including the children. And they can be the greatest parents in the world and not discuss these things in front of the children, but kids really do feel the timber of what is happening within the family and the community.”

With the continued vaccine rollout, spirits have begun to lift, and Browning says he sees how attitude shifts affect students’ behavior.

“The number of students being disruptive and sent to the office is down to almost zero. At our school we have a lot of students from low- income families, which have led to behavior issues in the past. But since we have been back there has been few discipline problems. I was shocked.”

You can find more information and resources to help in your classroom at these websites:

https://www.apa.org/pi/families/how-teachers-help.pdf

https://www.apa.org/pi/families/what-teachers-know.pdf

CDC Study: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6945a3.htm