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Experts Warn Students May Face Challenges When In-Person Classes Resume


Attending school remotely is hard for kids, and it turns out it can be hard to return to school, too. That's because of the isolation and worry kids have experienced during the pandemic. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Stella Aslibekyan (ph) lives in Santa Clara, Calif. Her 6-year-old daughter, Zoe (ph), just started kindergarten. Like most children learning remotely, most of her school day is spent on her computer.

STELLA ASLIBEKYAN: This is all done via Zoom, so it looks like "Hollywood Squares" on her screen.

NEIGHMOND: Zoe spends about four hours doing schoolwork, much of it on different apps. She has lots of adults at home helping her, and Aslibekyan worries when in-person school starts, Zoe will face big challenges vying for the teacher's attention.

ASLIBEKYAN: Zoe's a naturally shy, introverted child, and I can see her feeling very overwhelmed and lost, especially without that one-on-one attention that she's getting now from her family.

NEIGHMOND: Across the country in a suburb of Nashville, Tenn., Aundria Green says when the pandemic first hit, her 6-year-old daughter, Ava Simone (ph), became clingy and sad.

AUNDRIA GREEN: At night, she would cry because she wanted to go back to school and she missed her friends and she hated corona. And she still says she hates corona.

NEIGHMOND: Green talks with her daughter about her sadness, but she says that's not the case for some children.

GREEN: If no one is giving you an opportunity to talk about your feelings about COVID, about how it's changed your life, about where we're going next or how you've been impacted, you're just holding that inside. And what kind of side effects will there be from this trauma? Because it's been traumatic for everyone, adults and children.

NEIGHMOND: Green would like to see schools offer all students a safe place to talk. Child and teen psychologist Maryam Jernigan-Noesi says one good option for younger children - extend circle time, where children sit in a circle and share.

MARYAM JERNIGAN-NOESI: So what we want to do in the extended circle time is not just how was your weekend but really allow for more space for the child that, you know, may be more reflective or just needs more time to really talk about some of what they may have experienced or seen, you know, over these past months where they haven't really been socially connected to their peers or to their teachers or their school buildings.

NEIGHMOND: And she says it's not just young children who need more time to talk and share; older students need it, too.

JERNIGAN-NOESI: And really using what we call a trauma-informed lens, which is prioritizing the emotional health and well-being, the idea of kind of teaching children and adolescents to regulate their emotions and really pay attention to their bodies and their minds and how they're feeling.

NEIGHMOND: Which can instill a sense of calm and help students focus on the academic day. Schools will have to think outside the box, she says - for example, maybe starting off the day with meditation, mindfulness or breathing exercises. Jernigan-Noesi says mental health strategies are especially critical for children of color because their communities have been hit hard by this pandemic.

JERNIGAN-NOESI: They could have had parents that were laid off from work, lost financial resources. Certainly with regard to rates of infection, they can have family members or loved ones that have been ill and, in some cases, family members that have died.

NEIGHMOND: According to the CDC, Black and Hispanic Americans are getting infected with coronavirus at nearly three times the rate of white people, and they're nearly five times as likely to be hospitalized. Psychiatrist Anish Dube works with mostly low-income children and teens in Orange County, Calif. He says many communities have the resources to help children cope with feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, but that's often not the case in low-income communities, where resources are already stretched.

ANISH DUBE: The kids that I talk to, a lot of them talk about how the teachers are - seem unprepared, the school administration seems unprepared, and that anxiety of the school officials trickles down to them. And so they get anxious about learning because they feel like their education is not being taken seriously.

NEIGHMOND: Parents and teachers can help, he says, by validating students' feelings and being a role model themselves.

DUBE: And so it's important for us to be reassuring for them, not to be making false promises or to be lying to them but to be able to say, you know, these are uncertain times, and we're going to get through it. We're going to focus one week at a time.

NEIGHMOND: Additional funding is needed, says Dube, in order to effectively address mental health issues for all students. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.