On March 10, The River held an event sponsored by SUNY New Paltz’s Institute for Disaster Mental Health, in which students and educators talked about the lasting effects and ongoing challenges of the pandemic on learning and social development.
Many schools have been back in-person for months now, and some are lifting mask mandates following Governor Kathy Hochul’s policy change earlier this month. However, the effects of the pandemic still linger for educators and students alike. Depression and anxiety rates among youth are soaring, while educators have been struggling to keep up with ever-changing conditions for the past two years without the necessary support.
Students Are Struggling
Dr. Karla Vermeulen, associate professor of psychology and deputy director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health, opened the event citing statistics from Mental Health America that 15 percent of youth reported experiencing at least one major depressive episode in the past year, up 2.3 percent from 2018. Vermeulen also noted that 60 percent of youth with major depression received no treatment. Amayah Spence, a senior at SUNY New Paltz studying psychology and journalism, spoke on her own struggles. “There have been so many days I couldn’t get out of bed,” she said. She also noted that schools have been “given the incredible opportunity to make our campus more accessible,” by allowing the option for students to join class remotely and creating more lenient attendance policies. There are no current policy changes by SUNY New Paltz that reflect this, but Spence is hopeful.
Sophie Frank, a senior at Onteora High School who has written for The River about teen mental health during the pandemic, said COVID “prompted a major reckoning in my life.” She talked about how she reflected during that time, and how that led to her writing for The River and pursuing journalism. In a way, recent data reflects what Frank observed. Junior Achievement, an organization dedicated to teaching young people economic life skills, shows that one in four students who graduated high school in 2020 delayed their plans to go to college due to the pandemic.
Educators Are Pivoting
Shanna Andrawis, a teacher at Poughkeepsie High School, and Alicia Curlew, a teacher at Onteora High School, both spoke about how the pandemic has changed their perspective on teaching.
“Many of my students had not set foot in a classroom since they were eighth graders,” said Andrawis, who teaches 10th grade. She saw students in her classroom struggling with sustained focus and classroom etiquette after spending two years at home.
“I feel like my mind has been opened to a new way,” Curlew said. Her teaching style became more flexible due to COVID. “We’re going slower. We’re thinking about emotional skills.” Curlew used to make a plan and stick very closely to it, but now she’s more exploratory in her teaching. “I think we have to teach differently, but I don’t think that there is a problem with the students.”
Both teachers noted that standardized testing was even more frustrating now, as slowing down and changing teaching methods meant moving away from “teaching to the test.” “As we reevaluate everything, the Regents Exam is looming over us,” Curlew said. The Regents Exam has long been unpopular with teachers, as it challenges students who don’t do well on high-stakes tests. In 2019, the Board of Regents considered getting rid of Regents Exams to improve graduation rates. LoHud.com reported that the Regents Exams were canceled in 2021 and the graduation rate rose by 1.3 percent, but we still lack data about what effect canceling the exams had on students.
But There’s Some Optimism
“In a lot of disasters, teachers become students’ second parents,” Spence said toward the end of the conversation. Almost everyone involved talked about how they had seen students and educators come together in an unprecedented way. “The way people are so eager to talk in class is something I’ve never seen before,” said Frank. She explained how school feels like a much more intentional community and it feels much more welcoming.
“I hope that we are really genuinely coming out of this now,” said Dr. Vermeulen. She’s excited to be back in the classroom with her students. The campus became mask-optional last Monday.