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Students, families still stressed by pandemic’s uncertainty

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Fate McDonald, left, and Alexander McDonald learn from home in April after Alpena Public Schools transitioned to remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic.

ALPENA — School-aged children experience anxiety because of the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic and the lack of consistency in everyday routines, local school and mental health professionals said.

A little over a year ago, the coronavirus pandemic interrupted people’s day-to-day routines when state-issued stay-at-home orders forced schools to move classes online.

With coronavirus safety plans and cleaning procedures, schools have throughout this school year attempted to bring kids back to class, but have repeatedly moved back to remote learning when infections or quarantines stretched staff thin.

Alpena Public Schools parent and Alpena resident Natosha McDonald said it’s stressful when children don’t know whether they’ll learn in-person or online from one week to the next.

McDonald said her children have a hard time focusing because home is supposed to be a relaxing environment, but she constantly has to remind them to focus on their schoolwork.

“It’s been stressful in that aspect, where I literally have to be on top of them all the time, because they want to just play and be relaxed at home,” she said. “And it’s — it’s just frustrating, because there’s no scheduling to it. There’s no real consistency.”

Young children rely on routines, but the uncertainty of switching between in-person and virtual learning has been difficult for families this year, Tricia Grifka, early childhood services director for the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency, said.

“Routines are a huge part of making a child feel safe,” she said. “So, if you have a consistent routine, they know what to expect and they know what they are supposed to do, what their role is. Because of the pandemic, everything is out of whack, everything is out of routine, and so it puts everyone on edge. I think it’s harder, also, for parents to maintain a routine — I know it is for me — and I think that’s the case for a lot of us right now.”

The number of children between the ages of 5 and 11 visiting an emergency department because of a mental health crisis climbed 24% from 2019 to 2020, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure increased by 31% among 12- to 17-year-olds.

The stress of the pandemic and virtual learning has Grifka worried about the impact on learning this past year. She doesn’t believe virtual learning is as effective as in-person learning, especially for preschoolers, although she said educators have done the best they could under the circumstances.

Additionally, Grifka said, children have more behavior problems because of stress.

Thunder Bay Community Health Service Inc. has offered behavioral health services in schools for more than 10 years, said Amy Hepburn, the agency’s behavioral health director.

She said behavioral health professionals have noticed an increase in kids’ social and emotional needs because of the uncertainty of the pandemic, with different effects for different age groups. Students in elementary school have difficulty regulating their emotions, while adolescents and teenagers experience more anxiety, depression, withdrawal, and/or substance abuse.

“When children don’t know how to control their emotions and they’re in the school setting, how do they show that? They act out in school,” she said. “Really, it’s coping mechanisms that we need to teach them. If we can teach them coping mechanisms and how to better manage things that they feel and they don’t know what they mean, it really helps them.”

Hepburn said Thunder Bay Community Health Service monitors suicide risk, and “over the last year, since the pandemic began … we’ve had individuals as young as 7 years old identified with suicidal ideation. I just want to say it’s concerning and it definitely supports the need and the services for continued mental health support in the schools.”

Additionally, Hepburn said, behavioral health professionals have had to get creative in how they reach students when students learn remotely. Students attend appointments from iPads in the agency’s parking lot.

Thirty percent of Alpena Community College students in a September survey ranked their mental health as poor or very poor and 60% asked for mental health counseling, according to the college.

College officials contracted with Carey Schiller, a social worker with Northern Therapeutic Center, to offer students four 50-to 60-minute counseling sessions starting this semester.

College President Don MacMaster said the students appreciate counseling and college officials plan to continue the services.

“School is a stressful time for students, even in the best of times, even in normal times,” he said. “It’s stressful because school requires discipline and persistence in the content and can be very difficult. And, so, you add those into life challenges, stresses, and anxiety results. What we’ve tried to do is mitigate that or respond to it.”

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