Teachers say the post-pandemic return to in-person classes has exposed an unprecedented number of students who have fallen behind socially and emotionally.
This has led to the need for more mental health support to deal with a jump in the number of school disruptions — fights, bullying, threats or rumors of violence on social media that have led to school closures across the region and state. Some students are simply trying to figure out how to behave in the classroom after nearly two years.
Kate Dias, a teacher and president of the Connecticut Education Association, said schools are trying to address a slew of mental health issues that have arisen from the COVID-19 pandemic. These needs reach even the youngest children.
“We have a lot of needs that are different from pre-pandemic. We are trying to find a point of balance between normal and good, nothing normal,” Dias said. We have a lot of students who don’t really organize well, and they don’t handle conflict well. Some act.”
She said there is a national shortage of substitutes and certified teachers leading to higher taxes for teachers, who already have a lot on their boards.
Tensions are especially high in high schools now, as in the rest of the world. If things happen in societies, tensions and tensions are, it gets magnified in schools when you add teenage hormones into the mix,” she said.
There are many examples of school unrest in southeastern Connecticut.
In East Lyme, high school bathrooms have been the backdrop for incidents ranging from vandalism to violence.
It started in September, when a social media trend that went viral on video sharing platform TikTok prompted some students to pull paper towel dispensers and soap dispensers from walls and toss some into the bathrooms, clogging them.
Subsequent incidents in the girls’ bathrooms included verbal and then physical assaults that were shared via videos on social media. The situation highlighted racial tensions at the school that students say have been ignored by the administration. In November, nearly a quarter of East Lyme High School students walked out of class in protest of what they described as school officials’ failure to condemn racist statements and actions.
In October, Waterford High School chose to hold part of its celebration of Spirit Week, a “New Year’s Eve Party” for seniors, outside due to COVID-19 safety precautions. Instead, a large group of students chose to sneak through the halls of the school and began an offensive hymn when a staff member stepped in. The principal of the school, Andre Hauser, sent a letter to parents explaining the dishonesty and curtailment of planned school-wide activities.
In November, a student at a New London High School was arrested in an assault on a principal. The student reportedly shouted at him, slapped and punched him. Multiple arrests resulted from a fight involving at least eight high school students later that month. Parents showed up at the school on November 16 due to rumors circulating on social media of a shooting there. These rumors turned out to be unfounded; One student reported seeing a gun that turned out to be a mobile phone.
In Montville, in November, a brawl between two students outside St. Bernard’s School, apparently on videotape, led school head Don Macrino to send a letter to parents expressing his disappointment.
“Not only is this an embarrassment to the school, it’s part of a larger problem with students’ uncensored use of the Internet,” Macrino wrote. “At any other time it can be considered ‘just a school fight.’ However, in these highly charged times with immediate access and the freedom to spread greatly exaggerated rumours, I wanted to reach you with the facts.”
Just last week, a juvenile was charged with an incident at the Norwich Free Academy, in which staff members found two counterfeit rifles. The incident prompted students and parents to march against school violence and bullying on Saturday.
Struggling with adaptation
Children are experiencing trauma, anxiety and depression, and there is an increase in the severity of the cases that group counselors are dealing with, said Amanda Frechette, a mental health physician with the Child and Family Agency in Southeast Connecticut.
The Child & Family Agency operates free school health centers that provide outpatient medical and mental services in 13 schools.
The agency works alongside teachers in Groton and New London, where Frechette said he did a good job of identifying the issues and not only hired psychologists and social workers at the school but partnered with the agency to advise individuals and groups.
“A lot of kids struggle with adjusting,” Frechette said.
She said students are trying to catch up on social and relationship skills that they and their peers didn’t have a chance to develop during the break from school.
“With some of these kids, they weren’t in a place where they could learn these skills in the same way,” Fritchett said. “And now they’re starting to rebuild them.”
In the way adults have had to adjust to a physical return to work, children try to do the same but without the maturity to manage it appropriately. Students also experienced difficulties at home that included isolation, loss of family, unemployed parents, or any number of traumatic events, such as homelessness.
In New London, an area of about 3,100 students, the answer has been a multi-pronged approach to engaging students and families, identifying students who need advice, and taking safety issues seriously.
The district has an in-school mentoring program, where students from Connecticut College are brought in to work with youth. It has increased the number of after-school programs and family engagement activities, established the Daily Quiet Classroom initiative, held correctional workshops, and appointed special safety committees for each school to respond to student and family concerns.
Meanwhile, New London School Principal Cynthia Ritchie said the area still has to deal with COVID-19 – 116 cases affecting 834 people so far.
The area is dealing with a huge jump in the number of homeless students, who are defined as children who lack stable, regular and adequate night housing. As of October, the district reported 13 students living in a shelter, 189 doubled with another family or friend and 18 living in a hotel. The vast majority of these students are colored.
“Our need is much greater this year, and it goes far beyond what we have seen in years,” said Carrie Rivera, Assistant Director of Mental Health Services at New London Schools.
Meditation and evolution
Rivera is quick to point out that the vast majority of students handle the transition well. About 5% of students require services. She said other students had lost their “school maturity.”
District data on disciplinary action is still preliminary but in New London, as of December, 224 disciplinary actions had been taken against 168 students. This includes a combination of in-school and out-of-school suspensions, as well as five expulsions. State data shows that New London reported that 319 students were disciplined in the 2018-19 academic year.
The focus remains on providing support to students, Ritchie said, and the reason why the district has added school psychologists, social workers, mental health professionals and other mental health professionals to schools while expanding efforts to conduct home visits to reach families. Federal Pandemic Relief grants fund some of these jobs, but the district is also seeking about two dozen paraprofessional positions to provide relief to certified teachers who “have their hands full.”
Ritchie said she expects that after the adjustment period, students will be back on track with the right support. New London has made a concerted effort to reach students at an early age through initiatives including the opening of the Early Childhood Resource Center in New London from birth to age eight.
“I think we are in an evolutionary phase. We are developing and changing the education system, to meet children wherever they are. We are trying to modify a system to reflect new patterns of behavior, new needs and new understandings of student learning. I don’t think education will look the same during General. We are trying to reflect and develop. We desperately need more support in schools and it will take some time to build it up. They are growing pains.”
Today’s staff members Elizabeth Reagan and Claire Bessette contributed to this report.