COVID-19 pandemic may give rise to ‘universal stress’ for kids coming back to school

Health experts discussed the myriad of ways they're working with public schools to combat any new anxieties children may be feeling as fall inches closer.

In this file photo, children's locker space feature photos of themselves and their names.
–David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe

As families and teachers anticipate the day students can finally walk through their school hallways again, Shella Dennery is worried about a newfound “universal stress” kids might be feeling as they continue to face unknowns and drastic changes in their routines amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Dennery, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Neighborhood Partnership Program, said she’s assuming many kids will be coming back to school with new anxieties, including separation anxiety after having spent so much time being close to their families at home.

“But I do want to remind all of us how resilient kids are, how strong they are,” she said. “It’s just really important, as adults, to remember how kids will take our lead. They’re listening to us, they’re watching how we’re all reacting to this, and they’re gonna mirror how we respond.”

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Before kids return to the classroom, she said, “it’s important that we recognize and acknowledge that it’s OK to feel anxiety in these moments as we re-enter.”

Dennery was one of five leaders from Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston Public Schools who met for a virtual panel discussion Thursday afternoon, pondering what the future of child care and early education might look like even as COVID-19 alters the roadmap every day.

As part of preparing to reopen, Dennery said she’s been working on designing a “summer series of trainings for teachers around social emotional learning and behavioral health and re-entry.”

The goal, she added, would be to help teachers feel more prepared to address budding mental or behavioral health issues.

“They’re getting so much around math, and reading, and curriculum, but how do we also give them the tools and the confidence they need in this space?” she asked.

Another priority, Dennery said, is looking into screening students’ social and emotional health.

“We screen them for math and for reading, but how can we also proactively identify kids who might need more support?” she asked. “We know kids, all kids, are gonna need some support, but how do we really start to know who might need a little more and provide that in the beginning rather than waiting for a crisis?”

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Dennery added that oftentimes, families of color and youth of color don’t access mental health at the same rates as white families. Knowing this, she said it’s time to reinvent mental health care by establishing more culturally responsive resources, thinking about group work, and seeking more equitable ways to intervene with kids and families.

To her, the best place to start that work and reduce stigma around mental health care is in schools.

While kids will need their teachers now more than ever for reassurance, Dennery said supportive positions in schools — such as social workers, school psychologists, guidance counselors, and school nurses — will also become essential figures in all students’ lives.

“I really think it’s a great opportunity to look at staffing models across the commonwealth to make sure that kids have the support they need when they need it,” she added.

BPS’s Behavioral Health Services department is composed of 69 school psychologists and eight school social workers, which work between the district’s 125 buildings.

“We can do better,” Dennery said of hiring more school psychologists. “That’s not quite acceptable.”

BPS School Nurse Consultant Mary Jane O’Brien named just a few of the ways school nurses have stepped up to provide for their students beyond the classroom during the public health crisis.

“In Boston, when they asked school nurses to volunteer to be contact tracers, they needed four, they got 40 applicants,” O’Brien said. “We’re also seeing school nurses who show up to schools where food is distributed, and take boxes of food every day to families of students with special health care needs in order to have those eyes on those students.”

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In early child care, Executive Director for Community Health at Boston Children’s Hospital Shari Nethersole said research has shown that children’s first three to five years of life are extremely formative.

Knowing this, she said it’s important to address the ways younger kids living through the pandemic might be filing their memories as adverse childhood experiences.

“Many studies show that if children have those adverse childhood experiences, it actually affects them for the long term,” Nethersole said. “And those experiences set the stage for life both in terms of adulthood, both in terms of economic success, as well as educational success.”

But she said positive childhood experiences can mitigate the adverse experiences.

“That’s why it’s really critical that we focus on providing quality, early childhood opportunities for children and opportunities where they get to build their skills, and have that supported in a healthy, developmentally supportive way,” Nethersole said.

As schools continue looking to creative strategies for reopening, O’Brien reminded that the pandemic, if anything, has given educators the ability to re-emerge in the fall with “a stronger scholastic model for the future.”

“I’m eternally optimistic,” O’Brien said. “I see this as a whole new beginning and a whole new way to restructure learning, to restructure … mental health, to restructure daycare — it is an opportunity and I’m going to continue to view it as that and I’m going to continue to work towards making that happen.”


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