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The Second Pandemic

From March through October 2020, the proportion of emergency department visits related to mental health increased 24% for children ages 5-11 and spiked 31% for adolescents aged 12-17, compared to the same period the previous year. Those writing about the mental health field have consistently noted that children are experiencing feelings of isolation, stress, anxiety, and uncertainty much in the same way adults are. These symptoms amount to what some are calling “The Second Pandemic.” 

Many parents often do not recognize the emotional toll that this pandemic is taking on their children because the children are physically healthy and appear to be happy.  While we do not yet know the long-term emotional impact the pandemic will have, many mental health experts are concerned that the less obvious emotional struggles could leave an impact even after the pandemic ends. 

There is a popular statement amongst educators which says – “Students have to Maslow before they can Bloom.” This means that the physical and emotional needs of students must be addressed and met before they can fully learn. This is based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs versus learning as expressed in Bloom’s educational taxonomy. Teachers, educators, and parents who understand what it means to put children first have realized this fact amidst this pandemic. It is not realistic or healthy to aim for the same goals right now as we would in a “normal” school year. Without ensuring the physical and emotional wellness of our children, the learning that can happen during this pandemic would not be able to happen.

Some of our own students and parents share similar feelings and have been forthcoming about feeling a sense of  “stuckness” – a sense of general monotony and boredom; a lack of stimulation; feeling socially stifled; a lack of activity outside of school, and anxiety about getting COVID-19. Therapists in private practice are overwhelmed by the sheer number of children who are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Without fail, private practitioners are over-booked these days.

Like most struggles, the challenges are not distributed equally.  Children who are learning virtually or spend only a couple of days a week at school and those from underprivileged communities all face greater risks.  Over 20 million students have not set foot in a school this year, and millions more are going a few days per week, at best. We at Schechter and those at similar schools are fortunate. As one staff member shared with me, “When I compare it to my own children’s experience, what is going on at Schechter is so much healthier, richer, and mentally supportive.  I see a lot of amazing learning and I also see how what we are doing, even when not perfect, will truly help our students get through this.”

As we approach a year since the pandemic hit and our lives were upended, I think we can all agree that nothing is normal and that the longer it drags on the more mentally exhausting it becomes. And since nothing is normal, I literally have a plea for all of the parents who still expect their children to learn and engage as if nothing has changed – STOP! For all of the parents who still think teachers can successfully “cover all of the material” and teach with the same expected results from before the pandemic – STOP!

This is not a time to fixate on educational measurement tools and the conventional wisdom of the past, which was never so wise anyway. For those thinking our children must meet the same benchmarks to get ahead and be “ready,”  understand that our children are not “falling behind” –  a narrative we hear in the media and a fear freely promoted by some tutoring businesses.  The measurements are artificial constructs designed long ago. And while these constructs will still be with us (I hope not for long) after the pandemic, they will likely be adjusted to reflect the post pandemic reality. We cannot fall into the trap that kids will now need to “catch up.”  

There hasn’t been learning loss – there has been a school loss. Children are still learning. They are learning to be flexible, resilient, compassionate. Many have picked up new, creative skills or found new interests that stimulate their minds. They are learning through play. They are learning to negotiate and compromise especially with family members who they are spending a lot of time with. They are learning life skills.

We are blessed to be able to have school in session and on campus five days a week. Even when a particular pod has to quarantine from time to time, the days in school far outnumber the days for most children in our communities and the country. We are blessed that learning is still taking place and that our children are gaining skills and growing emotionally and socially, in spite of these unique challenges.

The skills associated with school will also be learned. It should not be viewed as a race that children are now losing. Caring teachers will be able to assess where students are in their learning and adjust so that the skills needed are acquired long before they graduate.

For now, as the pandemic drags on, let’s put Maslow first – let’s make sure their emotional physical, and spiritual needs are being met – only then will they truly bloom. 

8 Comments

  • Hillary Kessler Godin - February 11, 2021

    Truth. Thank you, Steve.

    Reply
  • jonathan warman - February 11, 2021

    This is the result from the over use of testing healthy children, draconian measures of separation in and away school from their peers. As long as these measures continue, the numbers and suffering of our children will continue and increase.

    Reply
  • Fern Roth - February 11, 2021

    Spot on

    Reply
  • Jaide Massin - February 11, 2021

    Couldn’t agree more!

    Reply
  • Alicia Messer - February 11, 2021

    The students are very fortunate to have 5 days a week of in-person full day instruction. I give the staff and teachers so much credit for showing up everyday as they wait for their turn to be vaccinated. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Steve Freedman - February 11, 2021

      Thank you!

      Reply
  • Amy Igel - February 11, 2021

    What an important message, and I’m so glad this perspective on education in this “new world” is recognized and being infused at SSDS. As a parent and teacher, I truly appreciate all you and the staff are doing every day, and thank you for being there for our kids.

    Reply
  • Menorah Rotenberg - February 12, 2021

    I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for this important message

    Reply

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