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COVID Kids: Schools, others offer services to combat pandemic’s side effects

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Evan and Amelia Repke play recently on their electronic devices, which the children used to finish last school year after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed school buildings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

ALPENA — It may take years to learn how the COVID-19 pandemic and the actions taken to protect public health have impacted children, especially in terms of their educational skills and mental health.

In the meantime, Northeast Michigan leaders said the region has enough mental and physical health and educational services to help children overcome residual harm from the pandemic.

Students had to finish out last school year online or through correspondence courses after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed school buildings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. That, coupled with forced business closures that put many parents out of work and social distancing restrictions keeping kids from their friends, has had kids trying to comprehend the vast change to their lives and adapt to new realities.

There could be long-term implications from that.

One concern is that the annual “summer slide” — a term for research showing kids lose educational ground over the long summer break — will be more severe this fall because of the extended time students were out of class and the number of lessons not taught.

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Evan Repke plays on his laptop while on summer vacation in this August 2020 news file photo.

Another concern is that, with so much time away from their teachers and their peers, kids’ social and emotional development could be set back, especially younger students. While every kid is unique, local experts said children could experience anxiety, depression, paranoia, and, eventually, if those earlier symptoms are not addressed, drug and alcohol dependency.

To help overcome those setbacks, educators and others are gearing up for extra tutoring and counseling when school resumes later this month and are linking kids and families to other resources in the community.

“During a global pandemic, it’s easy to focus on logistical concerns, and there are certainly plenty of them,” said Susan Wooden, interim superintendent at Alpena Public Schools. “But the emotional health of our students deserves attention, too. If we are not careful to pay attention to our collective well-being, we may end up with a statewide mental health crisis on our hands.”

‘WE HAVE STRUCTURED PROGRAMS’

Wooden said there are enough services and resources to assist students and families.

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Ameilia Repke enjoys learning on her LeapFrog tablet while school is out.

The Alpena school system works with groups such as 211, the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency, District Health Department No. 4, and others to help children and their families receive the support they may need, including individualized instruction.

The 211 program allows those who need assistance to simply dial 211, and, similar to a 911 call, an operator will recommend services and organizations that may help. Each entity also refers people to one another to be sure the best resources are being used.

Alpena schools have partnered with the Alcona Health Center and NEMCSA for behavioral health services, Wooden said.

The district has also posted a list of local resources on its website.

Outside of schools, other organizations are doing what they can to keep kids connected to one another.

The Boys and Girls Club of Alpena offers recreation, counseling, tutoring, and nutritional food to the city’s kids. Those services are proving to be more valuable than ever, club Executive Director Brad Somers said.

The club was closed for a good deal of Whitmer’s pandemic closures, but, now that it is open, club leaders hope to help kids catch up academically and sort out what has taken place the last several months.

“We have very structured programs for the kids, where they can still have fun and interact with friends in a safe and secure environment, but also get support they need for other things that may be causing them issues,” Somers said. “Social interaction is very important, and it just isn’t the same doing it through a computer screen. Even if the interactions are through a mask, or from six feet away, it is important kids have that.”

‘THERE WASN’T A LOT OF MEAT’

Challenging educators, school will be offered this fall through a mix of in-person and online courses, and many parents’ experiences with online courses set up on the fly this spring revealed the limits of the format.

Alpena’s Amanda Repke and her husband, Doug, have two children, a 5-year-old daughter, Amelia, and a 9-year-old son, Evan.

When school was canceled this spring, grandparents minded the kids while the parents were at work, Repke said. There were noticeable changes in the kids’ behavior, especially her daughter’s, as they tried to adjust to being at home every day and transitioning to virtual learning.

“She was grumpy and cranky a lot, and she was constantly talking about her friends,” she said.

Repke said the school system was put in a difficult situation and had to set up online learning quickly. Schools did the best they could, she said, but virtual learning was lacking.

“APS lagged with at-home learning,” Repke said. “Evan would log on once a week for a class meeting and then, every day, they would have assignments. He could finish it all in an hour. There wasn’t a lot of content, and there wasn’t a lot of meat to the assignments.”

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Repke said her son thrives in subjects such as math and science, but struggles with reading.

Now, she said, she worries he could fall further behind.

WHAT PARENTS CAN DO

Meanwhile, parents can do their part to help kids overcome the obstacles.

Simply explaining to your children what’s going on is paramount, Catholic Human Services counselor Larry LaCross said.

He said it could be uncomfortable for parents to be honest about why drastic changes to kids’ lives were necessary and the possible repercussions of those changes, but it’s necessary.

The best thing to do, LaCross said, is to try to keep each day as close to the same as possible, to establish healthy habits.

“Kids rely on precedent, routine and structure,” LaCross said. “These things are deemed stable by them. (The pandemic) has caused a loss of things that were normal to them, and that can be quite traumatic. Parents need to set new routines and maintain a predictable structure for them at home. Unfortunately, that isn’t always easy, right now.”

LaCross added that, if there are lingering emotional issues or big changes in kids’ behavior, professional counseling may be needed.

“Not having the social connection they need can be a big stresser on them, as they need interaction to grow, learn, and discover who and what they are,” he said. “Of course, they can still communicate on social media, which is OK, but that is not the same as interacting with one another face to face.”

LaCross said children’s experiences during the pandemic could have some value to them later later in life. Traumatic experiences can strengthen resolve, helping them overcome future obstacles, and could help kids learn to be more self-dependent.

“Potentially, there could be a lot of benefits,” LaCross said. “More family time together is always a good thing, especially for a teenager, and that allows for the family to learn more about one another. It also teaches them that they can be resilient and selfless from witnessing all of the support people are offering one another right now.”

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