The email, written by an eighth grader and with the subject line “Wellness Check,” landed in her school counselor’s inbox nearly three weeks after schools had closed in Libby, Mont., a remote town of 2,700 cradled by snow-topped mountains.
“I would like you to call me,” the student wrote. “This whole pandemic has really been frightening and I hate to say it, but I miss going to school. I hate being home all day.”
The counselor, Brittany Katzer, was alarmed. The student had long struggled with depression and was considered high-risk for harming herself. Ms. Katzer called the girl several times, but the number she tried was out of service. She sent emails and left a message on the girl’s mother’s phone.
Neither the girl nor her mother returned the messages. The student has not contacted any of her teachers or submitted any assignments since the school district shifted to distance learning.
“I worry about her safety and mental health, but what else can I do?” asked Ms. Katzer, who said that on average, pre-pandemic, she spoke with about 100 students, either individually or in group sessions, on a typical school day. “The face-to-face connections that I make with kids are irreplaceable. Now, who knows what’s happening with them?”
The shuttering of the American education system severed students from more than just classrooms, friends and extracurricular activities. It has also cut off an estimated 55 million children and teenagers from school staff members whose open doors and compassionate advice helped them build self-esteem, navigate the pressures of adolescence and cope with trauma.
Desperate to safeguard students’ emotional well-being amid the isolation and financial turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic, teachers are checking in during video classes, counselors are posting mindfulness videos on Facebook and school psychologists are holding therapy sessions over the phone.
“I’m hearing a lot of grief and loss,” said Lauren Hunter, a counselor who works in two public schools in Los Angeles as part of the Cedars-Sinai Share & Care program, which provides mental health services to at-risk students in 30 county schools.
But the challenges hard-wired into online learning present daunting obstacles for the remote guidance counselor’s office, particularly among students from low-income families who have lost jobs or lack internet access at home. And mental health experts worry about the psychological toll on a younger generation that was already experiencing soaring rates of depression, anxiety and suicide before the pandemic.
“Not every kid can be online and have a confidential conversation about how things are going at home with parents in earshot,” said Seth Pollak, director of the Child Emotion Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Until the coronavirus outbreak, Maellen Johnson, 16, a sophomore at Libby High School, had visited her guidance counselor’s office nearly every school day since the seventh grade, when the counselor pulled her aside after hearing she was having suicidal tendencies. Their relationship, Maellen said, helped her overcome those feelings, and the office became her refuge from the stress of classes and family drama.
“It was just a peaceful place,” Maellen said. “She always offered comfort and safety.”
Now, Maellen texts her counselor at least once a week, usually to vent about the struggles of being stuck at home with her brother, her mother, her mother’s fiancé and his two children in the house they have shared since November. The communication has helped her cope, she said, but texting is hardly a good substitute. “It’s just easier to let out all those anxieties when you’re actually talking face to face,” she said.
Some educators, dissatisfied with the limitations of technology, have found ways to visit students during the pandemic.
Emily Fox, a social emotional specialist at a primary school in Chillicothe, Ohio, uses Zoom to meet with her students. Many of the children are being raised by grandparents, she said, while some have been traumatized by family addiction. She said she worried about suicidal ideation and attempts by students as young as kindergartners, a problem even before school closed.
Desperate to check up on her students, Ms. Fox regularly delivers lunch to those from more underprivileged families, and she recently devoted an afternoon to driving to a dozen houses, where she talked to students from a safe distance outside.
“It gave me comfort just seeing their smiling faces,” she said.
During the outbreak, Jael Hernandez, a single mother of three, including an autistic son, has been homebound in their apartment in Oakland, Calif., because of her compromised immune system.
Though the school delivers some meals, and her children’s grandmother does the food shopping, the pressure of working two jobs remotely, on top of helping her children with their online learning, has left Ms. Hernandez with little time to handle their emotional needs.
“I’m dealing with so much that I forget to really check on how they’re feeling,” said Ms. Hernandez, 38, admitting that she often erupts at her children because of the stress.
For Ms. Hernandez’s elder child, Jizelle, 14, an eighth grader, the loss of school and friends has been compounded by her isolation. Allowed outside only to walk their pug around the building’s backyard, she said she often cried because she was so overwhelmed.
“I feel alone,” she said, “and like so many things are happening at once — I can’t really process it.”
Before the pandemic, Jo’Vianni Smith was a talented 15-year-old athlete who played on her high school’s varsity softball team in Stockton, Calif. Music and sports were her passions, said her mother, Danielle Hunt, who proudly recounted how Jo’Vianni, a sophomore, had competed in the junior Olympic track and field championships last year.
But once her school and softball season shut down in March, so, too, did her active daily routine. Unable to hang out with her friends while isolating at home with her mother and grandparents, Jo’Vianni spent her days learning remotely, browsing social media and hitting balls at a local park until that, too, was closed.
“I feel like she was bored out of her mind,” Ms. Hunt said.
Without any warning, Jo’Vianni died by suicide in her bedroom on April 4. Her mother was working downstairs and her grandmother, an essential worker, discovered her body when she returned home.
In the weeks since, Ms. Hunt has searched for clues that might shed light on why her daughter took her life. Jo’Vianni left no note, and the police found nothing suspicious in her phone or on social media accounts, so Ms. Hunt begged Jo’Vianni’s friends for information. “I’m like, ‘She’s gone, no more teenage secrets, you can tell me now,’” she said, but they were just as mystified.
Amid the lockdown, Ms. Hunt organized a small viewing at their church, with only a few visitors allowed inside at a time. Now home, and with little to do but mourn, Ms. Hunt is wracked by grief and confusion.
She cannot square the act with the ambitious daughter she thought she knew so well. Still, she feels certain that the stress of the pandemic played a role in her daughter’s tragic end.
“The world is so upside down, and nothing is right,” she said.
(By Dan Levin/The New York Times)