School is back to normal, but students may not be
The Beacon High School parent described her teenage daughter as “the glue of the family” — a headstrong young woman who always “wants to make sure everybody’s well and together.”
But by the summer of 2020, after students in New York finished the last three months of the school year behind computer screens because of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, something had changed.
One day that summer, the mother took her daughter to Long Dock Park at the Beacon waterfront for some fresh air. The girl wore a sweater. “I thought it was weird, because it was hot out,” said the mother, whose identity, along with her daughter’s, is being withheld so she could speak candidly about her family’s mental health.
Later that summer, her daughter was in the kitchen “grabbing something — and that’s when I noticed her arm,” the mother said. The girl, who said she felt isolated because of the shutdown, and feared she or her parents would contract COVID before vaccines were available, had been cutting herself with a razor blade.
While her reaction was extreme, the Beacon student was hardly alone in her emotional struggles during the pandemic.
Last month, schools in the Highlands began the 2022-23 academic year unfettered by the pandemic for the first time since early 2020. Classes are being held in person and there are no mask or distancing requirements.
But according to school officials, teachers and parents, not everything is back to normal. Problem-solving and other skills have diminished in the classroom, they say, while many children are more withdrawn and fearful of making mistakes, and less able to regulate their emotions. In this series, we hope to provide insight into what’s happening with children and teenagers, the youngest of whom have never attended school without precautions.
After discovering she was cutting herself, the Beacon girl’s parents removed knives from the kitchen and shaving razors from the bathroom. If she needed to shave, her mother would stay in the bathroom with her. The couple installed security cameras inside their home to keep an eye on her.
“It was something that came out of nowhere for us,” the mother said. “We never thought that she would be suffering like that.”
The girl told her parents that, in the moment, cutting made her feel better. Research has shown that cutting often begins as an impulse and, because it provides a temporary sense of relief from other painful or overwhelming emotions, can become habitual. “It may help for that moment, but you have to address the core of the problem,” the mother told her daughter. “Whatever you’re dealing with is still there.”
Although public schools in Beacon reopened for “hybrid,” two-days-per-week in-person instruction in the fall of 2020, the girl began having stomach aches and continued to feel anxious around crowds. At one point, feeling unsafe at home, she asked to be admitted to a mental health treatment facility.
The stay only lasted a few days; upon returning home, she committed to learning to manage her anxiety. The parents met with school administrators and designed a plan that allowed the girl to give teachers a nonverbal signal and leave class to speak with a counselor if needed. She was also provided extra time to complete tests, to counter anxiety.
Her mother said as she and her husband helped their daughter, “we found out that some of her other friends were dealing with the same issues, becoming very depressed or dealing with anxiety. It was a real eye-opener.”
Of course, many children and teenagers were hurting before the pandemic; the U.S. surgeon general noted in an advisory last year that “an alarming number of young people” struggled with depression and thoughts of self-harm even before the shutdown. But the isolation of COVID did nothing to help.
Last month, while reviewing state testing scores with the Beacon school board, Sagrario Rudecindo-O’Neill, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and student support, presented a chart to summarize the issue.
In one column were students’ grade levels — first, second and so on. In the other was the grade at which the students last experienced a “normal” year.
For a teenager entering the ninth grade at Beacon High School, for example, the last uninterrupted academic year was 2018-19, when he or she was in the sixth grade. For a third grader, the last typical year would have been kindergarten.
In the fall of 2021, “our second grade students were technically coming in for the first time like kindergarten students, emotionally,” Rudecindo-O’Neill noted in an interview. “When you come into kindergarten, we’re teaching things such as eye contact, sharing and sitting in the seat and sustaining attention. So all those pre-writing skills that you need in order to be able to learn, we had to start those over again, because your typical second grader didn’t get an opportunity to do that.”
The gap in emotional development is even more evident among middle and high school students.
“The last time ninth grade students had a normal school year, they were sixth graders,” Rudecindo-O’Neill said. “So now they’re going into high school, not having had that real experience of middle school, which is when your body is changing and you’re changing emotionally. That’s why middle school is so tough.
“They get into high school, and they’re struggling to sustain attention and fulfill the expectations that a ‘regular’ ninth grader would be able to. You have to be ready to learn in order to learn,” she said.
In the fall of 2020, after the state Department of Health reviewed hundreds of reopening plans, the Beacon, Haldane and Garrison districts began the year offering a mix of in-person and virtual instruction. It was the first opportunity for students to return to school since the shutdown six months earlier. Families choosing a hybrid plan sent their children to in-person school two days per week, while all-virtual options were available for students whose families did not want to send them back into classrooms.
As students bounced between virtual and in-person schooling, administrators were juggling mask mandates, contact-tracing and temporary closures in an effort to keep school open while mitigating a highly transmissible virus that by the end of 2020 was killing 2,700 people in the U.S. daily and would get even worse in 2021.
In the spring of 2021, in-person learning was expanded in Beacon and at Haldane High School and — despite the super-contagious Delta variant, which spread throughout the country that summer — in the fall of that year, schools in the Highlands reopened for full-time in-person instruction, albeit with mask requirements.
For students who had been all-virtual, the return to classrooms required some adjustment.
“It’s different when you’re at home,” Rudecindo-O’Neill explained. “You don’t have to change clothes if you don’t want to; you don’t have to turn on your camera. It’s a different space than coming in [to the school building], where there’s all these expectations of interaction.”
Online, “you can’t freely speak the way you would in person,” she said. “You have to wait. When you go into those breakout rooms, it’s very different. And God forbid if the technology isn’t working right. In an in-person conversation, you pick up body language, you pick up nuances and you know how your behavior is affecting someone else. You don’t get to do that virtually.”
Anxiety in children and teens manifests itself in many ways, said Rudecindo-O’Neill. “There’s inattention and irritability, or misinterpreting things from other students. We’ve had to go back to things that we had under control before — how we treat one another in the [educational] space.”
At Haldane, Superintendent Philip Benante said students have been dealing with similar circumstances. In 2020-21, “we were still seeing signs of kids who were struggling to demonstrate pro-social behaviors,” he said. “For some, it was clear that they hadn’t been around other kids for some time. There was this disconnection, or lack of engagement, or, when they were engaging, it was in ways that weren’t the most constructive.
“If a student was already struggling in school, socially or emotionally, that was exacerbated,” Benante said. “If there were negative behaviors in school, those came back even more pronounced, which demanded further intervention on our part in ways that we weren’t doing before the pandemic.”
A second account
Another Beacon High School parent shared in an interview how she, too, grew concerned about her son’s social and academic well-being during the pandemic.
Before the shutdown, her son was “friendly, but not the most social kid.” Once virtual schooling began, he was in his room alone from 8:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. every day, and the isolation intensified.
While the mother hoped her son would become more social as he grew older, the pandemic accelerated the opposite effect. Friendships fell by the wayside, and the teen showed little desire to get together with peers outside of school. He would shoot baskets at home but wasn’t interested in trying out for the basketball team at school.
Her son appeared “happy in his own little world,” his mother said, but “I don’t want him to miss out on forming close friendships. I want him to have fun and still be a kid.”
Academics became more challenging, as well. Over Zoom, the teen didn’t get the one-on-one interaction he needed and fell behind. The boy’s mother said that “some teachers were great,” while others “just made assignments.” At times, the boy would make a “technology” mistake, such as forgetting to hit “submit” after finishing an assignment, and get a zero, even though the work had been completed.
One of the mental health positions added in the Beacon school district through American Rescue Plan funding was a high school teacher focused on restorative practices, a discipline that involves “interventions,” or face-to-face meetings, between parties involved in conflict.
The technique was historically found in Indigenous communities and religious traditions. It began seeping into mainstream culture in the 1970s and was first implemented in Australian schools in the 1990s as an alternative to punitive discipline.
Sagrario Rudecindo-O’Neill, Beacon’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and student support, explained how the practice is implemented in a school setting.
“If you think about how we have traditionally handled discipline, if you do something, there’s a consequence,” she said. “Restorative practices empower our students to have a voice, to be able to say, ‘We’re noticing things in this space that aren’t helping us to be productive.’
“Having that open method of communication goes both ways, as opposed to, ‘I’m the authority figure and you’re not, so what I say goes.’ There’s a meeting of the minds because they’re living there [in the educational space]. What’s also missing in our discipline is a student might do something and there’s a consequence, but there’s not an opportunity to have reconciliation.
“If I did something that hurt or offended you, we’re able to sit down and have that conversation, where you’re telling me how my actions may have hurt you or disrupted the environment. Then we can say, ‘We’re going to move forward; and here are some of the ways.’ That holds more weight.
“If we look at our penal system, we know that, statistically, punishment doesn’t work. But when you look at countries where they do restorative practices, people don’t repeat. Because there’s a human element to it, where you’re seeing what the consequences of your actions are, but you’re not an outcast from society. There’s an understanding that, yes, this happened, but we still respect you and want you to be a part of our community.”
That led her son to become disheartened with school. “Even when students went back to in-person instruction, if he didn’t have a teacher that was on top of things,” his mother said, the boy would make comments like, “‘This class is a waste of time.’”
As the 2022-23 school year approached, she noticed that he had become less motivated and more judgmental. He remarked that he hoped he wouldn’t have any “lousy” teachers this year, his mother said.
Denise Angelo, a licensed clinical social worker based in Cold Spring, counsels children as young as 3 years old in Dutchess and Putnam counties. She believes the explosion in pandemic-related anxiety in children and teens stems from a need for stability.
“The pandemic dropped their basic stability, which was school,” said Angelo, who was a social worker at a Westchester County middle school for 23 years before going into private practice. “I used to see kids whose behavior would worsen when summer was coming, because school was the only stable thing in their life. Whether or not they liked it, school was stable, it was someplace to go. The teachers were always there. The social worker was there.”
When schools went virtual, and interactions with friends and their extended families were relegated to FaceTime and other digital mediums, children sought something to attach to, she said.
“A lot of kids only see their friends in school,” Angelo said. “So what’s happened is you have a lot of virtual friends, and kids see them as their ‘real’ friends, as their lifeline. Their sense of security says, ‘Well, I attach to these people,’ and that’s their whole socialization.”
But a life lived via text messages, or through FaceTime or Discord, can lead to misinterpretation, hurt feelings and anxiety. “I’ve seen so many kids coming in with anxiety,” Angelo said. “We’re living in a crazy world that has everyone in anxiety, but the anxiety level of children has risen so much.”
Since reopening, Beacon, the largest of the three Highlands districts with about 2,600 students, has added two social workers, as well as a teacher focused on social and emotional learning and another on “restorative practices.” It now has 23 mental-health staff members across its six schools.
Haldane, with about 800 students, added a behavior analyst (therapist) in the fall of 2019 and has six full-time mental-health staff members, as well as a part-time psychologist. Garrison, with 215 students, has a psychologist and a guidance counselor, the same as before the pandemic. (The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students.)
Beacon and Haldane funded their new staff with a combination of money from the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill enacted in March 2021, and state and local funding.
Before the pandemic, Nick DeMarco, a psychologist at Beacon High School, would refer students to private therapists “pretty frequently” for issues more substantial than “go to counseling, and then go to math class.” But now, with DeMarco seeing 40 to 60 students during a busy week — roughly double his pre-COVID caseload — there’s an increased need for referrals but nowhere to send them, he said.
Angelo said she began working one to two days a week as a private therapist after retiring in 2014. “I’m now working four days a week, sometimes as early as 9 a.m., until 8 p.m. Then, every other Friday, I come in to see a number of kids. I come in one Saturday a month to see someone else who can’t come another time. And I’m always getting referrals — I had two yesterday and one the day before,” she said in August.
Angelo estimates that she sees around 35 to 40 clients each week, most of them children and adolescents. Before the pandemic, her caseload was about half that. She does not advertise or have a website; referrals are all word-of-mouth.
“I’m totally booked. I’m trying to figure out my schedule for the school year,” Angelo said. “I have three groups on Wednesdays, a group on Monday and a group on alternate Thursdays. That way I can see more children and work with their needs, because some kids do better in groups and a lot of kids are socially isolated. That was something that started with the pandemic and it keeps going.”
Social media, self-image and testing data
This series was funded by contributions from readers to our Special Projects Fund.
Thank you for this series. It is more important than ever that we address the mental health of our young population. I’m so tired of people assuming that all kids are resilient and “will be fine” or “get past it.” Whether we like it or not, these last few years have shaped who they are becoming and we need to be extra attentive to their needs and well-being.