• Christina Muñoz • IDRA Newsletter • March 2021 •
Two out of five young adults 18- to 24-years-old report having at least one “adverse mental or behavioral health condition” during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to survey findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young adults of color experience disproportionately worse mental health outcomes. (Czeisler, et al., 2020)
If you put faces and voices to the numbers, each will echo similar sentiments in their experiences with virtual, remote and distance-learning during the pandemic. Among high school students, stress is a loud theme that reverberates in dialogues about the many challenges students faced this past year.
With the abrupt mass transition to an online distance-learning model in schools, students’ home and school environments merged; residual stress from the school day knows no boundaries. They face at-home stressors, like the care and support of younger siblings engaging in their own learning, Internet connectivity issues, learning distractions, restricted privacy for completing classwork, inadequate space to study, and work obligations to help support their families during this period. These apply pressure from yet another angle to students’ normal school-related stressors and healthcare concerns heightened by the pandemic.
Preliminary findings from a ground-breaking participatory action-based research conducted by San Antonio students show that more than 71% of survey respondents consider virtual remote learning as contributing more stress than traditional in-person school. Through an IDRA project funded by Seek Common Ground, a team of teens surveyed high school upperclassmen and university undergraduate lowerclassmen finding that 75% of respondents report having struggled with mental health issues during the pandemic. (See Page 2.)
“There is often no separation from my school life and my home life. I’m always mentally thinking about the next assignment I have due, and it keeps me up at night and increases my anxiety.”
– student survey respondent
Many students report experiencing a back-and-forth battle between “I’m doing too much, and I’m not doing enough” while engaging in their large amount of online classwork, during and after the school day, as they manage their interaction across several online programs and sites. That emotional stress manifests into physical strain, such as anxiety-induced headaches, stomachaches and back pain.
Virtual remote learning for most students has also meant a disruption to their social lives with friends and peers in the school setting. Little to no socialization with friends and peers during the school day has increased feelings of isolation for students. It has the added layer of limited social interaction due to the fear of contracting the COVID-19 virus and has drastically increased depression rates among young adults.
A national survey by America’s Promise Alliance conducted in spring 2020 found almost one third of high school students reported feelings of unhappiness and depression outside their normal ranges during the first months of the pandemic.
Limited social interaction impacts students’ attention and interest in school in general, so the reduced interaction through online learning platforms between students and their peers and teachers has greatly affected students’ relationship with their learning (Wentzel & Wigfield, 1998).
Students also struggle to maintain authentic engagement with their peers and instructors during the school day. A Texas Education Agency (TEA) report found that 11% of the state student population (more than 600,000 public school students) were disengaged from their classwork or unresponsive to teacher and school outreach (2020).
While defined by TEA in this case as the completion of assignment and response to teacher and school outreach, student engagement usually is more broadly characterized as a student’s sense of connection to, safety and involvement in their learning environment that leads to positive outcomes in motivation, academic achievement, regular school attendance and graduation. Engagement is a nuanced construct and is comprised of various facets of the student’s experience at school, including academic self-efficacy, motivation and connectedness to or feelings of belonging in their school and classroom environment.
It is important to examine these facets of student engagement deeper through the lens of student mental health and wellness. State leaders, school leaders, advocates and other community leaders need to understand the nuances of the student experience during the pandemic and work to create a safe, nurturing space in which students can equitably receive a quality education, through both traditional and virtual options.
Schools and communities need viable solutions to address student mental health and wellness concerns and their impact on academic engagement. IDRA advocates for legislation that directly addresses student mental health concerns. For example, a proposal in the Texas Senate (Senate Bill 179) responds to the growing need for accessible and effective counseling support in schools, particularly in response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student’s mental health and wellness. Another measure (SB 178) would work to incrementally reduce student to counselor ratios in Texas public schools over the course of nine academic school years to reflect one school counselor for every 300 students by the 2029-30 academic school year. The average in Texas is currently one counselor for every 442 students.
Other strategies include teaching students self-care techniques and effective tools in promoting strong, resilient mental and emotional wellness for themselves, their peers and their families.
Additionally, IDRA advocates for training school board leadership, school leaders and teachers in trauma-informed school care to better equip them to respond to the mental health crisis pervasive among young students.
Conversations surrounding mental health concerns must continue for promoting authentic, transparent and accepting culture around strong student mental health and wellness. Schools should continue to connect students in need of support and guidance with counselors and other mental health professionals to whom they can entrust their challenges and struggles.
America’s Promise Alliance. (June 9, 2020). Appendix: The State of Young People During COVID-19. Washington, D.C.
Czeisler M.É., Lane, R.I., Petrosky, E., Wiley, J.F., Christensen, A., Rashid Njai, R., Weaver, M.D., Robbins, R., Facer-Childs, E.R., Barger, L.K., Czeisler, C.A., Howard, M.E., & Rajaratnam, S.M.W. (August 14, 2020). Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic – United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Klass, P. (August 24, 2020). Young Adults’ Pandemic Mental Health Risks. New York Times.
McClurg, L. (November 28, 2020). Pandemic Takes Toll on Children’s Mental Health. NPR.
Swaby, A. (June 30, 2020). Warning of “COVID slide,” Texas Education Agency reports 1 in 10 students have disengaged during the pandemic. Texas Tribune.
Wentzel, K.R., & Wigfield, A. (June 1998). Academic and Social Motivational Influences on Students’ Academic Performance. Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 155-175.
Christina Muñoz is an IDRA Education Policy Fellow. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at email@example.com.
[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2021 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]