Child's full backpack illustration
The Equity Issue

What It's Like Growing Up in a Crisis

Whether you have children or not, there's no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a toll on your household. Adults and children alike are experiencing social isolation, high rates of anxiety and depression, and a general uneasiness for the future as surges of new variants continue to ebb and flow.

We're still working to understand the full extent of the impact on children and teachers, though. The pandemic's beginning saw teachers and children thrust into distance learning at short notice. COVID-19 had reached the United States and was spreading at lightning speed. People were getting sick and overwhelming hospitals and healthcare professionals in a way the world hadn't seen since the flu pandemic of 1918.

Curiously, the immediate action that contained the MERS, SARS, and H1N1 outbreaks was absent when COVID-19 descended on the world in late 2019. This created the perfect conditions for it to uproot our daily lives, forcing our children to grow and learn as best they can in a crisis. These conditions certainly aren't ideal, and the effects on teachers and children are significant.

Learning Loss

Once we embarked on the long, confusing, and sometimes frustrating journey of distance learning, it became clear that many school districts were woefully unprepared. Many lacked software and programs to support fully virtual classrooms. And in many cases, teachers were left to fill in the gaps.

During my time as a teacher, I was fortunate to have a mentor who coached me on the importance of using technology in the classroom years before the pandemic made it a necessity. I was well-versed in the benefits for myself and my students, namely higher student engagement and easily measurable student outcomes. I also had a lot of colleagues who weren’t as familiar, so I know the transition to virtual learning was much more difficult for them.

However, teachers who were familiar with educational technology still struggled. The digital divide played a large part in students’ ability to even show up on a daily basis. Many of them lacked access to devices and reliable internet, leading to student absenteeism and disengagement.

As a result, “the switch to completely virtual learning, which depends on both broadband and a device, immediately disadvantaged millions of children in this country,” explained Teodora Pavkovic, experienced psychologist and digital wellness expert at Linewize. “It is much like asking someone to meet you someplace that is several hours away from where you live, without giving you any ability to transport yourself there; it is an impossible task.”

Naturally, this gave rise to deep concerns about learning loss from both teachers and parents. It didn’t take long for them to question the impact of the virtual environment on academic outcomes. A 2020 study estimated that third-grade students could experience over a year and a half of learning loss by 10th grade as a result.

Teodora Pavkovic, psychologist and digital wellness expert

It is much like asking someone to meet you someplace that is several hours away from where you live, without giving you any ability to transport yourself there; it is an impossible task.

— Teodora Pavkovic, psychologist and digital wellness expert

This isn’t entirely a surprise when you put it in the context of students’ lived experiences. William Russell, Ed.D, student recovery and retention specialist and former principal of K-12 schools, notes that “this year’s second-grade students have never had a normal, uninterrupted school year. They’re missing numeracy, literacy, social skills, and many are experiencing post-traumatic stress. Secondary students have similar deficiencies.”

However, there’s more at play than the abrupt shift to virtual classrooms. There’s a lot of instability in the learning environment in general. “The constant switching back and forth between different environments and modes of instruction (and teachers due to frequent absences and teacher shortages) has been extremely challenging for students and teachers alike,” says Chris Sweigart, PhD, an education consultant for pre-K-12 educators in Kentucky, and founder of Limened.

Outbreaks in the classroom leave students without the consistency that is the foundation for student success. When teachers are constantly thrown into quarantine resulting from exposure or testing positive for COVID-19, substitute teachers try their best to fill in. Still, they don’t have the same preparation and experience in many cases. This further contributes to the learning loss and is exacerbated when school districts close schools in response to large swaths of teachers and students getting sick.

Chris Sweigart, PhD, education consultant

The constant switching back and forth between different environments and modes of instruction (and teachers due to frequent absences and teacher shortages) has been extremely challenging for students and teachers alike.

— Chris Sweigart, PhD, education consultant

Social and Emotional Regression

Falling academically behind isn't the only concern, as children also develop emotionally and socially in the classroom. Additionally, teachers and school counselors often identify children who struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns. Virtual learning puts these students at increased risk because teachers and other school personnel can't assess them as thoroughly.

They can turn off their cameras or even refuse to attend class, making it difficult to engage with them in meaningful ways. Add that to the camera fatigue and social isolation they're experiencing, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Furthermore, the virtual environment deprives children of the social and emotional benefits of in-person settings. In fact, there's been a significant push in recent years to implement more social and emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom. But a lot of these efforts aren't translating in the virtual environment, "impacting children's social-emotional progress and isolating them from their peer groups," explains Russell.

Former school psychologist and Riverside Insights consultant Jenny Ponzuric, MA, LEP, ABSNP agrees, adding that "parents and educators are reporting more anxiety and depression [among students]. It's important to factor in social and emotional considerations as well as academic considerations."

Jenny Ponzuric, MA, LEP, ABSNP

Parents and educators are reporting more anxiety and depression [among students]. It’s important to factor in social and emotional considerations as well as academic considerations.

— Jenny Ponzuric, MA, LEP, ABSNP

There’s also fallout from the poorly thought-out return to in-person learning that has taken place over the past six months to a year. Many school districts failed to appropriately consider the consequences of returning to the classroom without adequately keeping both teachers and students safe (and they over-exaggerated their preparation).

This is especially true for teachers and students in marginalized communities lacking adequate ventilation to mitigate the risk of infection. The facilities in these communities are often too old for HVAC systems that school officials can equip with filters, increasing the likelihood of more outbreaks and deaths among educators, students, and the people they infect with COVID-19.

Teacher Burnout

Children aren't the only people struggling to keep it together as they traverse the landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers are reaching their wit's end. At the beginning of the pandemic, they were touted as heroes. Nearly two years later, after experiencing the trauma of losing colleagues to an unpredictable coronavirus and fearing that they may bring it home to their loved ones from overpopulated classrooms, they're leaving the profession in droves (myself included).

While the newly developed COVID-19 vaccines have brought a comfort level for 73% of teachers, the lack of comprehensive public health programs to mitigate the pandemic has brought them to a breaking point. In 2021, the RAND Corporation revealed that 1 in 4 teachers planned to leave the profession, up from just 1 in 6 before the pandemic, due to stressful work conditions that worsened with the pandemic.

The National Education Association, which surveyed its nearly 3 million teacher members, reports that the situation may actually be worse. One-third of its members are preparing to leave the classroom sooner than initially planned. With other professions offering flexible working conditions and higher pay, it's no wonder they are leaving at record numbers.

"Teachers are overwhelmed, depleted, and often don't have the resources they need. They have struggled to balance performing their jobs and caring for their families, who may be experiencing the same losses and struggles as their students," points out Lisa Downey, the associate dean of the Undergraduate Educator Preparation Program at National Louis University.

Without intervention and an end in sight for the pandemic, matters may get even worse. And each new surge gives us a peek behind the curtain to see just how precarious the state of the public school system is.

The Pandemic Rages On

The negative impact of the pandemic on the education system is undeniable. Teachers, students, and parents are all struggling with mental health concerns and increased stress. Until it ends, they’re all at the mercy of these circumstances.

So, parents are relegated to finding short-term fixes to maintain their mental and emotional health and help their children keep up academically as best they can. There are a couple of things they can do to help mitigate the fallout: help their children with their schooling and model how to process and express emotions.

Parents may be tempted to hide their emotions to protect their children, but this may further contribute to the social and emotional learning loss they’re experiencing. Jason Kahn, PhD, a research associate at Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard instructor, and co-founder and chief science officer of Mightier, would “encourage parents to be upfront with their children about their own frustration with the back and forth of in-person and remote learning."

"Engage in open conversations to help normalize your childrens’ feelings during this time of continued unpredictability,” Kahn adds.

Children can also benefit from their parents’ help to keep up academically in the meantime. After all, research shows that students perform better when their parents are engaged in their schooling.

If you or a loved one are struggling with COVID-related or other life transitions, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Artwork by Alex Dos Diaz

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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