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COVID-19 put stress on District 518 students, who adapted

The students have experienced unusual stressors, such as lack of structure, due to COVID-19, but many have responded to roadblocks with empathy and understanding.

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A Worthington Middle School student shuts the door to his locker on the first day of school on Monday morning. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, many adults are feeling the stress — and so are many children, prompting school staff to keep an ever-watchful eye out for their students.

“They had to adjust a lot,” said Lindsay Jenniges, school social worker at Worthington High School.

“Overall, I think a lot of students adapted. … it truly does affect each of us differently,” added Lakeyta Swinea, a school counselor at WHS.

At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, District 518 did a needs assessment, and students were able to answer questions about how they felt about COVID-19. Some said it hadn’t impacted their lives at all, while others said it had changed things significantly.

“I lost my job for a little while at the beginning,” one senior wrote. “I was unable to visit my grandparents for a while as well. It’s caused a lot of disagreements for everyone (whether or not we should wear masks, get vaccinated, stay home, do this do that etc etc) which is a lot of unnecessary stress added to everything happening in the world already.”

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Losses and difficulties

District 518 keeps a staff of 10 school counselors, four school social workers and three and a half school psychologists, all of whom help provide students with mental health resources and assistance when needed.

The pandemic has posed a series of shifting challenges to everyone regardless of age, and students are no exception. Some of those challenges began to ease off in 2021 while other arrived to take their place.

“Last year, it was really difficult switching back and forth between learning models,” Jenniges said. “That’s been better this year, in general.”

At the same time, she has seen more anxiety and depression in students, some of whom enjoyed doing schoolwork at home in their pajamas, where it was quiet.

It can help students to focus on what they can control and change, Swinea said — their own actions and responses.

And many of the stressors adults have experienced throughout the pandemic are shared by children.

“Some kids have been stressed by the idea of getting COVID and passing it on to the family,” said Abby Alfson, school psychologist for the district. “... it almost comes down to uncertainty.”

Many children are dealing with parents who have lost jobs, and some are dealing with the loss of one or more parents. With a loss of an income can come the loss of access to food and other basic needs, such as the reliable wireless internet service students require.

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Some students have faced unexpected academic difficulties, particularly freshmen who were transitioning into high school and then also had to transition into online coursework, Jenniges said. Credit recovery options can help those students who didn’t pass their classes catch up, in many cases.

Other students are grieving other kinds of losses, such as the seniors who missed out on the traditions of their final year in high school because large gatherings weren’t allowed.

Many of last year’s struggles were about the routines and structures of ordinary school time vanishing; this year, the students have had to readjust to the return of those routines and structures, Swinea said. That means getting to school on time every day.

Not all families had the same resources for dealing with COVID-19 either. Some students became caregivers to their younger siblings as their parents had to work, Alfson said, and District 518 staff worked to accommodate them too.

“The empathy factor really moved up,” she added.

She and Jenniges praised teachers for their patience and kindness in helping kids weather the pandemic.

What to watch for

Stress manifests differently in different age groups, but there are a number of behaviors parents, mentors and community members can look for.

Changing behavior can be a sign that a child may be experiencing difficulties. If a student had been getting As and Bs and suddenly brings home Ds and Fs, or if a student’s personality seems to change suddenly, that can be a sign that they’re struggling with stress, Alfson said.

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A child might also show that they’re stressed by disengaging in the things they used to do, or by showing more anxiety, particularly social anxiety, agreed Swinea and Jenniges.

Changes in sleep patterns might also be a symptom, Swinea noted.

“It badly affected my mental health, relationships with others (parents, partners, friends), education,” a District 518 senior wrote in the needs assessment.

A junior noted it had made it “hard to focus” on education, and another senior said it “made us go online and I hated it.”

Some age groups were affected in different ways than others. Many preschoolers, for example, are a bit behind with their social skills, such as learning appropriate ways to socialize and show their emotions to others, Alfson said. Generally, the freshman class is a bit immature compared to previous freshmen, due to similar socialization gaps.

“The structure thing has been huge,” Alfson said, pointing out that many students have had to re-learn what they’re supposed to be doing, and “just how to be in school.”

That can mean that to an observer, a child might seem to be defiant or deliberately misbehaving when “they really just don’t know what to do,” Swinea said.

Silver linings

Though some have had difficulties, sometimes children adapted remarkably well to various pandemic-induced changes. They seemed to do well with face masking, for example.

Other young people took on significant responsibilities during the pandemic.

“We have a lot of students that are young adults,” Swinea said, praising their resilience and their ability to weather change. These students have also grown to understand the importance of self-care and coping skills — and they have empathy, with an understanding of the pandemic’s impact on their parents that made them want to help others.

In turn, the community has rallied around the kids, Jenniges said.

When the pandemic prevented students from celebrating an in-person graduation ceremony, they had a virtual one with a drive-by parade. The community came out to cheer for the kids, celebrating their accomplishments with lawn signs and applause.

“I think if (students are) connected to the community, they feel that support,” Alfson said. “Hopefully they know.”

At least some students certainly did.

“(COVID-19) has made me grateful for the people I have in my life,” one District 518 senior wrote in the needs assessment. “It has affected my high school experience, but it wasn’t that bad, because I didn’t mind learning from home. Being independent made me more accountable for managing my time properly.”

A different normal

In 2021, students returned to school in person, and while COVID-19 is still around, they are “returning to a different normal,” Jenniges said.

District 518 has done a number of things in order to help students deal with the stress of COVID. It adopted “Character Strong,” a social-emotional learning curriculum, and students now have a designated advisor for all four years of high school. The district has also increased mental health staffing levels, adding three school counselors. There are even “Mental Health Mondays” emails sent out on mental health-related topics, such as depression, sleep and cyber bullying, and “Words of Wisdom Wednesdays” for positive quotes.

The school even put up a “virtual calming room,” where parents, students and the public can access it on the District 518 website, on the Learning Center’s page.

To help students struggling with basic necessities, Worthington High School started a wellness room, where kids can get donated shampoo, deodorant, conditioner, winter gloves, socks and other necessities. Items are donated by District 518 staff, but the public can contribute as well by contacting Alfson or Swinea.

The biggest thing that parents can do to help children weather the pandemic, though, is to just talk to them about it, Jenniges said.

“It might be a tough conversation, but you’ve got to have that communication,” Swinea added.

As one ninth-grader wrote: “It’s been hard, but no one goes through their life without a challenge or two!”

Related Topics: EDUCATIONCORONAVIRUSHEALTH
A 1999 graduate of Jackson County Central and a 2003 graduate of Augsburg College, Kari Lucin started writing for newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota in 2006. During her time as a reporter, she covered beats including education, watershed, county and agriculture, and frequently wrote about health and science. She has also served as an online content coordinator and an engagement specialist at various Forum Communications properties. She was a marketing assistant at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville for two years, where she did design work in addition to writing and social media management.

Lucin is currently a community editor with the Globe of Worthington.

Email: klucin@dglobe.com
Phone: (507) 376-7319
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