How remote learning is affecting students’ mental health

by Sarah Earle

While educators are working to address students’ learning needs, they are also realizing the effects of remote learning on students’ mental health.

Generally, students who were thriving before are doing well now, while some struggling students are falling further behind. But just as the pandemic has thrown some families into new categories of financial need, it has taken a mental toll on some students who do well in the traditional school setting. Many educators report an increase in anxiety among students. 

Each age group has specific needs that can be difficult to meet, too. For the youngest kids, the transition from teacher-centered instruction to student-directed, parent-supported lessons has been jarring for some, said Katie Scarpati, principal of Mill Brook School, a K-2 school in Concord. 

That’s especially true for students whose home lives are unstable, said Kris Gallo, principal of Christa McAuliffe School, a K-5 school in Concord. One kindergarten teacher shared with her that she tried meeting with her whole class via live video as a way to maintain social connections among them. It didn’t go as she’d hoped. 

“There’s so much stress in some of these families’ lives … she felt like she shouldn’t have seen that,” Gallo said. 

For middle school kids, who are beginning to exercise some independence from their parents and forge their own identities, the loss of peer interaction can be tough, said Kim Carpentino, principal of Gilbert H. Hood Middle School in Derry. She’s also concerned about cyberbullying and other misuse of technology among students in this age bracket. The school has had only a handful of such incidents this year, but Carpentino is taking a proactive approach by reminding students to be kind to each other in the morning message she posts for students each day. “They can be rough with each other online,” she said. 

While high school kids aren’t immune to such adolescent woes, some have also been thrust into adult roles since the pandemic arrived. 

“A lot of these kids right now are working a lot,” Dover High School Principal Peter Driscoll said. “They might be the family paycheck.” 

Others are babysitting siblings and helping administer their classwork while their parents work. As a result of the added responsibilities, some students who aced their classes in the past are suddenly struggling, Driscoll said. 

Districts are addressing the varied and changing needs of students in numerous ways. 

“I have teachers who meet with kids at seven at night,” Driscoll said. “That’s a lot to ask of the kid and a lot to ask of the teacher.”

In Derry, guidance counselors have been issued cell phones by the district so they can stay in close touch with students without compromising their own privacy, Carpentino said. 

Many districts have devised spreadsheets and other tools for keeping track of and responding to individual needs as they arise. 

“Luckily for all the schools, we know the kids. We’ve had two trimesters with these kids,” Carpentino said. “We know who the struggling kids are right now, and we’re trying to pick up those who are struggling in this new model.”

Empathy may be the most important tool educators can wield in dealing with the range of student needs, SAU 24 (Henniker, Weare, and Stoddard) Superintendent Jacqueline Coe said. 

“There are families who are under stress … who just can’t do this right now,” she said. “The expectations can’t be the same. This is about supporting our community.”

This is part of an ongoing series about remote learning in New Hampshire. Read more of the series: