Starting Anew: Concerns raised about health needs of students and teachers

As Kansas schools adjust to the pandemic, educators are concerned about the mental health of both students and teachers. 

A task force recently composed guidance for schools to address the psychological impacts of COVID-19 and the disruptions to K-12 education, along with nearly everything else. The KANSAS COVID Workgroup for Kids Mental Health Task Force was sponsored by the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita Department of Pediatrics and included local and regional experts. 

“We have seen a pretty significant increase in the social, emotional needs,” of students since school restarted, said Brian Murrison, a counselor at Fredonia Senior/Junior High School in southeast Kansas, who is also a member of the task force. 

He said major health issues were expected to develop after onsite schooling was shut down in March and many mental health services were provided via zoom instead of in-person because of the pandemic. 

Clinicians have said they have seen social isolation, loneliness and separation anxiety rising. Many concerns have been expressed about losing connections with children over the long, forced break.  

Dr. Lina Kitson, a psychologist who serves two elementary schools in Olathe USD 233, said behavioral issues have increased, but that she has also observed many students have shown resilience transitioning from remote to hybrid to onsite instruction. 

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Kitson said. “The kids have done an awesome job wearing masks, even the kindergartners.” 

Her primary concern with students has been with their academic progress, especially among those who need additional assistance, she said.  

But it’s not only students who are facing challenging mental health issues, but teachers too.  

Murrison said he sees teachers working so hard to reach their students that they aren’t tending to their own health needs. Teachers are having to pivot repeatedly in delivering instruction while worrying about the health of their students and the quality of education they are receiving. And teachers face the same challenges of many of their students’ families in trying to secure childcare and facing illness and financial problems. 

“Our staff is at their wit’s end some days,” Murrison said. The teachers are stressed beyond belief. The teachers are going to take care of the kids, but they (teachers) are not taking care of themselves. 

Kitson agreed. “They (teachers) were put in a very difficult situation; they did not know what the school year was going to look like in the summer,” she said. 

Having to teach remotely and then switch to in-person requires a lot of additional work, she said.  

“You could feel the stress level when you entered the building,” she said. Teachers, she said, have to set boundaries because they can work 24/7 and still not feel caught up. 

“It’s a crazy world right now,” Kitson said, but added “you can kind of see glimpses of normalcy and that is a testament to the schools, students and families.” 

Murrison said anything that anyone can do to help teachers is needed. For example, recently he bought breakfast pizzas for teachers that they ate while reading an email he circulated on self-help techniques. They greatly appreciated the gesture. “It was like I handed each of them a hundred-dollar bill,” he said. 

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