It’s been a year since New York City students experienced a normal day of school. As the pandemic abruptly turned life upside down around the world, roughly a million public school kids in NYC were thrust into a wildly inconsistent learning environment, with repeated openings and closings of school buildings and systemwide shifts to online learning as COVID-19 rates surge. The uncertainty amidst the pandemic has caused widespread reports of stress, anxiety and intense mental anguish among students -- with no definitive end in sight.
One second grader anxiously asks her mom every morning if she’s gotten a call from school about another case that shuts down the building. A teenager who enjoys remote learning has lost crucial engagement and socialization skills, preferring to tackle assignments alone in his bedroom and avoiding group projects. Another student said he has stopped commuting to Brooklyn Tech’s campus because his parents are worried about the rise in anti-Asian bias crimes and prefer to keep him home.
A Brooklyn parent who asked not to be identified to protect her eight-year-old son’s privacy said that when he found out he was going to be on remote learning again this year, “he just had a complete breakdown, like crying two and a half hours straight with all these anxieties that got built up,” she said, weeping, in a recent interview. “He started saying ‘I want to die,’ or ‘I don't want to be alive,’ and he started hitting himself.”
While education officials promise to reopen schools this fall for full-time learning again, many New York City parents and students are calling for more than academic recovery, but a reckoning with the disrupted school system’s mental health toll on kids.
A Year Of Anxiety And Turmoil
In the short term after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that public school buildings were closing on March 16th, 2020 and students were shifting to remote learning, some kids said they initially celebrated a break from school.
Ten-year-old Cecilia Gurzynski, a fifth grader from Astoria, said she didn’t realize how long she would go without being back in a classroom.
“I was actually kind of feeling good [at first] because I thought maybe I'm not having to go into school, it would be so much fun and everything,” she said. “But then I realized now that it's not fun at all because I barely ever see any of my friends and I really want to go back into school.”
“The first three months, kids were looking to the adults in their lives, including the therapists in their lives,” said Eloise True, a social worker with Counseling In Schools at Long Island City’s Community School 111Q Jacob Blackwell. “There was a really fresh sense of worry, a fresh sense of anxiety.”
After the passage of a year, kids are showing the effects of the prolonged changes to the once-predictable rhythms of school, she said. “One of the things that I am definitely seeing is the ways in which falling behind, academically, is affecting students’ sense of self,” True said.
“‘What's the point? Why should I even do this?’” an eighth grade student asked True recently.
“One of the things that really intersects mental health-wise with academics is a feeling of overwhelm when you get so far behind -- whether that's because you haven't had a laptop for two months and then finally that's gotten to you, or it's because having the motivation to wake up in the morning and be at home and get on the computer is just not intrinsic in you,” True said. “There's a sense of inevitability and not passing the grade, or a sense of inevitability of not being able to step up to this task because it feels so herculean.”
The greater pressures of life may compound all the other stresses of pandemic schooling for kids who are non-white, immigrant or low-income.
T., a 14-year-old teenager whose family didn't want to reveal his name, began his freshman year at Brooklyn Tech High School in September on a hybrid schedule, navigating the two-stop subway commute from his Chinatown home to the school’s campus in Fort Greene on his own. But with escalating reports of anti-Asian crimes and attacks, his mother worries about his safety, so he’s elected to stay on full remote learning for the rest of the year.
“The chances of (something) happening between those two stops to me is quite small, but I can understand her worries that anything could happen, especially nowadays,” T. said. “It's just best to stay home, where you know you're safe.”
The instability of the school system’s repeated closing of buildings when there are reports of two or more unrelated COVID cases has also taken a toll, said Jennifer Schulte of Astoria, whose two kids attend a public school that is currently closed because of cases.
“We got the call the other night. They were supposed to be in school three days this week and they're home again, they're depressed, they're upset,” she said. Schulte’s seven-year-old daughter has started asking every morning if school is closed: “She's, like, set and ready to expect disappointment.”
Even students who have adapted to their new way of schooling have lost something, Schulte said, as she worries her fifth-grade son had to give up his childhood.
“Part of me feels like he's too young to be that independent, he shouldn't have to be working the way a college student works,” she said. “He's managing his time and his workload in such a completely mature way, the way I remember functioning when I was in high school, and he's in fifth grade -- he's still a little kid.”
True, the school counselor, says some children are now worried life will never go back to normal, wondering “‘is this my life now? I never get to see my friends, I've lost touch with my other friend because she doesn't have a cell phone and we never see each other in school anymore and we used to be best friends,’” True said. “Like there's these other kinds of the grief -- it sort of sets in and becomes a little bit more of a norm.”
Listen to reporter Jessica Gould's radio story on teenage students' mental health for WNYC:
Angie Torres of Queens said her 16-year-old son Brandon, a born introvert who has enjoyed some aspects of remote learning, is now having issues with the engagement aspects of online classes. “They're requiring more student engagement...And I noticed that part is a struggle for Brandon,” Torres said, overhearing her son tell his teacher that “‘I'm going it alone’” on group projects.
Almost all NYC public school students have to constantly engage with online learning, which has led to reports of screen time ennui and burnout.
“I'm stuck on a screen and no one's happy. We're not talking to people, we're not really going outside, and we're all like doom-scrolling on Twitter or something, or looking at the news, or (having) hyper fixations on a lot of social media, which definitely is not healthy,” said T., the high school freshman.
“Parents are starting to realize that anxiety and depression are real in children, not just in adults, now that they’re home with them,” said Karen Varano, program director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of NYC. "They are seeing big changes in these kids." She has heard from concerned parents about suicidal ideation, anxiety or OCD, and eating disorders, with an estimated doubling of inquiries into relevant programs over the past year.
For New York City’s public school system, whose enrollment is 41% Latino, 26% Black, 16% Asian and 15% white, the deadly toll of the pandemic has been acutely felt: “During the first five months of the pandemic, an estimated 4,200 of 4 million children in the state lost a parent or caregiver to coronavirus, a rate of more than one out of every 1,000, according to a report by the United Hospital Fund and Boston Consulting Group released at the end of September,” with more than half of those affected children residents of the Bronx, Brooklyn or Queens, according to Gotham Gazette, which reported the pandemic has disportionately taken parents away from Black and Hispanic families: 1 out of every 600 Black children, and 1 out of every 700 Hispanic children have lost a parent or caregiver, compared to 1 out of 1,400 Asian children and 1 out of 1,500 white children in New York.
The public school student population is also primarily low-income, a point which was hammered home last spring when the city Department of Education had to scramble to outfit hundreds of thousands of families with devices for remote learning. Ensuring reliable internet access for students still remains a problem -- for example, Beatrice Chen, the executive director of Immigrant Social Services, Inc. said she estimated that 60% of the households on the Lower East Side do not have internet access at home.
“Right off the bat, the first large barrier was the...lack of technology,” Chen said. “We have that perception that everybody's on their smartphones -- yes they have the data plans, but they don't have internet necessary with the remote learning.”
For kids whose parents speak other primary languages at home, navigating the complexity of the city and DOE websites is yet another hurdle.
“For huge swathes of immigrant families, students whose families can't offer that much support -- not because they don't want to, just because they can’t and may not be literate, or digitally literate, (or) they may not speak the language,” said Andrea Ortiz, Manager of Education Policy at the New York Immigration Coalition. “That puts tremendous strain on those students to live up to the expectations of their families, to live up to what they want them to live up to, and they may just be feeling all kinds of stresses.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic hasn’t actually gone away, which makes effective treatment all the more difficult, said Dr. Ruth Gerson, Senior Vice President for Mental Health Services at the New York Foundling which provides mental health services to children.
“Can you treat trauma, the impact of trauma when the threat is ongoing? Most trauma treatment (experts) say, no you cannot,” Gerson said. “And I think that the difficulty of doing so is what we're experiencing, when there's ongoing stress, when there's ongoing uncertainty, when there's ongoing feeling of danger. It can be very hard to have the psychological distance from it to try to unpack it and really do evidence-based trauma treatment.”
United Federation of Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew last Wednesday called the prospect of healing this generation of schoolkids “probably the greatest challenge that any of us will ever face in our careers...that challenge is to undo so much of the harm and damage that has been done to the children, which we have dedicated our lives to. And that's not going to be easy. It's not going to be easy at all.”
What Schools Can And Should Do
Education officials say mental health of the students is a top priority and promise to weave social-emotional help into the overall academic recovery plan.
The Department of Education said it has launched a number of programs including the “Bridge to School” initiative which trained school leaders “in trauma-informed practices, like how to create classroom structures that facilitate healing, identify students in crisis, and procedures for compassionately supporting students struggling with grief and bereavement.”
The DOE also boosted resources for hundreds of schools in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, including a partnership with NYC Health + Hospitals for 26 schools to connect with “outpatient mental health clinics, where children and adolescents can receive ongoing therapy, psychiatric evaluation, medication management, and other clinical services” and placing clinical mental health care providers in 350 schools.
Newly-appointed public school Chancellor Meisha Porter has plans to deploy an extra 150 social workers “in the hardest hit neighborhoods by COVID (and) also expanding community schools. And so I think those are two approaches,” she said in a recent interview. “But we are also making sure that our staff members are trained in trauma, informed instructional practices and that we are also assessing students’ social-emotional needs.”
But the city and state have faced years of dwindling resources for mental health resources for youth, with 4,293 social workers and counselors deployed across the city school system in the 2018-2019 school year to serve more than a million students.
That has also meant delays in assessment and diagnosis: “Since long before COVID-19 arrived in New York, the state has faced a chronic shortage of mental health care for children and adolescents, with sick kids often sitting on waitlists for months to see a therapist or child psychologist,” a report from the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School said. “The State Department of Health estimates that one in five New York children has a diagnosable mental health disorder, yet fewer than half of those kids get any kind of professional care, according to surveys. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among New Yorkers aged 15-19, with numbers rising fastest among Black teenagers.”
The DOE’s additional 150 social workers may not be nearly enough for the full scope of work, some officials said. “In addition to the trauma and the impact that this has had on kids, taking stock of it has been a challenge. And that's why I don't think the DOE has a full picture yet on how severe this is,” said Councilman Mark Treyger, who heads the Council’s education committee.
The mother of the Brooklyn boy who spoke of wanting to die said she needs details of how the school system will help the most seriously affected kids recover. “Do they have a plan for kids like ours who have regressed, and who will need additional help?” she said.
Mulgrew of the teachers’ union said the city needs to think bigger, to the tune of a $1 billion investment in staffing and resources. “We want to create an intervention team for every one of our 1,800 schools, and that will include academic intervention specialists, that will include functional assessments, those are things that teachers know. Those are actually tools that we use to tell us where a child's learning is at and then we use that to design an instructional plan for that,” he said. “It is not a standardized test. We need psychologists and social workers and guidance counselors to help all of us understand what has happened.”
Treyger says the DOE needs to seize this moment of crisis and reshape the entire system as community schools that serve kids beyond mere academics, but nourishes them on multiple levels including food, healthcare, cultural and mental health resources.
“I think that every school moving forward must be and should be a community school...with health clinics (to provide) access to health care, food pantries, art, music programs, physical education programs after school programs, adult education programs after school as well,” he said. “We have a moral obligation to invest in these social-emotional supports for kids, to make schools these community hubs -- they have to be more than just academic centers...I really hope that we use (this) as a turning point that (schools) can no longer just be a place where it’s just to get a score, or just to turn in homework.”
“They will never get this time back,” Treyger added. “But at least we can take stock of it and come up with an action plan moving forward.”
With reporting by Jessica Gould