For students and teachers, the pandemic generation is still working on being OK
During the summer break, school teachers and administrators take stock of the past year and look ahead to what’s next. This summer, they’re looking back on the first full year with everyone back in-person since the pandemic began. And around the region, they say the effect on student behavior and mental health is far from over.
Here's our two-part series examining some lasting impacts of the pandemic on students and teachers in our local schools.
'Not something that normally happens here': Kids' behavioral and mental health issues soared during pandemic, and it's not over
The bell rings at Falmouth High School, and students file into the hall to change classes, filling the space with youthful voices.
These halls are bright and filled with art, and the sound of the bell is a gentle jingle — nothing like the clang that used to send high school freshmen everywhere into an anxious rush.
But students have plenty of other things to worry about.
Abbie, who will be a senior next year, is sitting in a staff office, taking a moment to talk.
“The pandemic definitely made things more difficult, because it kind of threw, like, a big wedge in the middle,” she says.
She was a freshman here in 2019, and she spent some time away from school for anxiety management. She’d only been back a short time when the building shut down because of COVID-19.
When she returned, she felt like the progress she’d made had gotten lost.
“That was really hard, getting back into it at first,” she says. “But it helped because the classes were smaller, because like half the people were at home.”
Then, last fall, everyone came back to school in person, full-time.
“And that's been pretty okay. It was tough at the beginning, but I did really well,” she says.
Which is great to hear. But in many ways, life is not back to normal at schools around the region.
Isolation and Its Aftermath
Educators and counselors say the effect on student behavior and mental health is far from over.
“Since the pandemic, the numbers of students going to the hospital for mental health crises has gone up tremendously,” said Katie Fauth, an adjustment counselor at Falmouth High School.
She manages the Bridge Program, which supports students academically, emotionally, and socially as they re-enter school from an extended absence.
“Students that had anxiety were able to hide in their house for a long time,” she said. “To get back has been really challenging for them.”
So, academic progress isn’t the only thing that’s running behind.
And student behavior in school has been a broad problem.
Some are having trouble conforming to the structure of in-person school, said Tom Scott, executive director the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
“A lot of these kids aren’t socialized as well as they would normally be, being out of school for that long,” he said. “That's a huge, monumental piece. … I don't think people have any comprehension about the challenges that's created.”
As they spent more time on social media to ease the isolation, some students got caught up in destructive trends.
One day this spring, Nantucket high schoolers were sent home early after what English teacher Page Martineau said was a “coordinated attack” on the plumbing.
“We had what they believe to be art clay flushed down our toilets, which stopped up the system,” she said.
Most of the bathrooms had to be closed. She said destruction in the bathrooms has happened a few times, starting with a TikTok challenge in the fall.
“Graffiti and fake blood, and … no sinks were ripped off the walls or anything, but certainly doors have been taken down, that kind of thing,” she said. “That's just not something that normally happens here.”
'Never this bad‘
Some districts have hired more social workers, counselors, and psychologists, if they can get them with the high cost of housing on the Cape and Islands.
The Dennis-Yarmouth schools did make some new counseling hires, said Superintendent Carol Woodbury, “just to make sure that every child is seen and heard when they need to be seen and heard.”
“I think, as human beings, we need other people,” she said. “And I think kids were missing that.”
She said some things kids missed are easy to teach — like showing second-graders how to eat in the cafeteria for the first time.
But other things are much harder.
Sheila House, a mental health counselor who directs youth and family services for the town of Harwich, said students are out of practice about what behavior crosses the line.
“A lot of the behaviors that you're seeing in the schools — that I've heard of, from my colleagues all over Cape Cod — is sort of kids talking inappropriately to each other, talking inappropriately to teachers,” she said.
Counselors are saying they’ve never seen it this bad, said Barbara Dominic, an independent clinical social worker who worked in the Nauset schools and now consults for Barnstable County.
She said professionals are reporting, “in general, more extreme behavioral problems with students, and of course, kids failing classes, failing in one or more classes, when prior to the pandemic they were not.”
It’s probably not fair to say these changes are only related to the pandemic, but some are the direct result of social isolation, Dominic said.
“Especially the learning gaps, the increase in social skills development [needs] for the younger kids, kids who maybe are not as actively pursuing their futures, whether it’s with college or other future education plans … Those are things that I would say have a direct connection,” she said.
In Part 2 of this story, we look at how the pandemic deepened students’ use of technology — for better and worse.
In the meantime, Barbara Dominic says the community should understand that coping with the pandemic may take longer than we thought.
'Incessant scrolling': Students more addicted to social apps — but educators say pandemic-era tech brings opportunities, too
“Gentlemen, how we doing?” says Principal Jennifer Police, greeting two boys as they walk down a quiet hallway at Monomoy Regional High School.
“Good,” they reply in chorus.
She makes her way through a video studio, engineering lab, and science classroom, talking about how things have changed since COVID-19. The conversation keeps coming back to digital technology — and especially, phones.
She says wants people to understand the world that young adults are navigating.
“Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat — these have all emerged, really, during the pandemic,” she says.
She says while those platforms existed before, students didn’t use them as extensively as they do now. “They communicate through social media apps. Kids don't really even text.”
Even before the pandemic, many adults thought students’ phone use was too much.
Then came remote school, extra screen time, and the burst in popularity of social video platform TikTok. Isolated at home, students became more immersed in technology, for both learning and socializing.
Further down the hall, we happen upon a “team room” — it’s an open area off the hallway, with study tables, like in a library.
Students can work together here with some level of autonomy. But right away, the principal notices — they’re on their phones.
“See? Cell phone. See? Cell phone. See? Look look look,” she says.
Initially, one student says they’re researching a final project. But when Police assures them they’re not in trouble, another student, soon-to-be sophomore Hailey, tells it like it is.
“I was scrolling on TikTok, and to be even more honest, when you walk away, I'm going to go back on my phone,” she says.
She says she sometimes uses the phone for schoolwork, but it’s also a distraction.
“I'll sit down and do homework, and then I'll pull out my phone, and I won't do my homework,” she says.
“You guys, like, lay in bed at night and do the incessant scrolling?” the principal asks knowingly.
For better and worse
Since the pandemic began, students have become more addicted to their phones, even in middle school, said Michael Horton, principal of Cyrus Peirce Middle School on Nantucket.
“Unless parents are really supervising kids or taking their phones away from them, they have no idea when kids are going to bed at night,” he said. “And that's affecting their schoolwork and academics.”
And observers point out that, of course, it’s not just the kids; adults are living in this world, too.
But tech in the pandemic hasn’t been all bad.
Technologies that blossomed to facilitate remote learning are here to stay.
For one thing, Nantucket teachers have started using an electronic daily syllabus. Horton said students can review it to clarify what’s expected of them, or catch up on work they missed when they’re sick or off-island.
“So that's a kind of a huge improvement, I would say, in the organization of daily class lessons and the use of technology,” he said.
In some districts, parents use video calls to meet with teachers or to watch their child get an award when they can’t be there in person.
The web, worldwide
Students are still recovering from COVID isolation, but they’ve gained a more global mindset, said Denise Patmon, an associate professor of education at UMass Boston.
“I ask people to shift their position and not necessarily look at what damage the pandemic caused,” she said. But rather, “What did kids learn during the pandemic?”
“And the kids have amazing, amazing new information that I would have never even thought to ask.”
Some educators say students are still behind, because remote school didn’t measure up. And academic gaps made more obvious by the pandemic persist.
But we shouldn’t be talking about just catching up, Patmon said.
“Catch you up to what? To things that were relevant in 2019?” she said. “It's 2025, for all practical purposes. We’ve got to move forward.”
Both she and the Monomoy principal pointed out that kids can stream the war in Ukraine live — and Google the answer to just about any factual question.
So Principal Jennifer Police says while content is still important, it’s time, more than ever, to teach collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking.
“What they don't need us for, anymore, is information,” she said. “Where can they access information? Online.”
“So our jobs, I think, as educators now, is to connect what you're learning in the classroom and then go see it in the real world. You need to see why — like, what's the purpose of algebra? I'm going to show you the purpose of algebra.”
The pandemic changed education for the long haul, the experts say — in some ways that are troubling, and others, exciting.