Students open up about mental health challenges during year of remote school

It has been just over one year since Amherst Regional High school began remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While ARHS plans to return full time to in-person classes starting May 3, 2021, remote learning and life in a pandemic negatively affected a lot of students’ mental health. 

Many students are planning to return to school in May even though it will only be for two months, or for seniors, five weeks. With promising vaccine rollout and an urge to be reunited with friends, senior Tulsi Patel is gunning to get back in the building. “I need a sense of normalcy back in my life,” said Patel. “I am also vaccinated, which is a huge reason why I am going back. I hope it will be better for my mental health.” 

Patel noted that remote learning got more difficult as the year has progressed, impacting her motivation and work ethic.

I felt the sting of remote learning too. My friend group has shrunk to a few friends, and while I used to skate five days a week, now I only occasionally make it to the rink. I didn’t join any virtual club meetings, and my job makes up for the bulk of my social interaction.  Many of my classmates have similar stories.

“Before COVID I feel like I had much broader social circles,” said senior Grant Powicki. “I was in contact with a lot more people. Now I feel like my friend group has condensed down a lot.”

“The people that I talk to on a daily basis have narrowed down to my closest, closest friends,” said junior Rebekah Hong. “I feel that it’s accessible to attend club meetings, but it’s not easier to join. It’s pretty draining to spend the entire day online just to go to another thing online.”

Many students reported the feeling of being burnt out at the end of the day, especially those that had longer synchronous Google Meets without the in-person interactions they were used to having in school.  They also bemoaned the winter months, when it was more difficult to spend time outside socially distanced with friends. 

“Mental health-wise it’s definitely been tougher than other school years,” said senior Griffin Jones. “Social interactions are what I like most about school, so not having that every day really sucks. Especially during the winter when I couldn’t even see people outside.”

Despite lively outreach from the guidance office, many seniors felt it was much harder to complete their college applications;  seniors noted they “couldn’t walk into the guidance office and ask a simple question” and they felt reaching out virtually was just tougher.

“Late fall, early winter of this year was very hard for me. That was when college applications were due and before vaccines were out. There was pressure to get college stuff done on my own,” said Annalise Peterson. There was no sense of when it was going to be over. There were pretty low lows where I was feeling super-isolated and in over my head, but at the same time very unmotivated.” 

During the 2020 spring semester, ARHS used a pass/fail grading system with infrequent class meetings, differing from this year where teachers shifted to a typical grading system and daily meetings because of the state’s time-on learning requirements. Opinions on whether students felt teachers were understanding about the circumstances of this year varied.

“I feel like they understand we are in a pandemic but don’t understand just how bad of a state we are all in, in regards to doing work,” said senior Mohamed Abdel-Maksoud. “My motivation to do work has become a solid zero now and I’m running on empty.”

Peterson noted that teachers may not have always been aware of circumstances that students were facing, unless they set up major channels of communication. “[Ultimately], I don’t blame the teachers,” she said. “Teachers can’t read our minds and teenagers aren’t always good at expressing our needs.” 

Others felt that teachers supported them and understood the conditions of this school year. Junior Emily Ireland said, “I think they have been very understanding. All my teachers made it very clear we can have extensions on homework if we are having problems outside of school and they are really relaxed with due dates as long as you let them know.”

“Some teachers have been doing a pretty good job about being flexible about work and being understanding about all circumstances,” said Powicki. “With that being said, I think there’s less connection with the guidance department and other support systems.” 

Powicki noted that while people might have been able to stop by guidance with ease in person or have regular one-on-one conversations with teachers, doing that now requires scheduling and coordination.  And though his experience is not necessarily the norm, he’s had “only had one or two one-on-one conversations with a teacher this year.” 

The Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition program, run by Karen Peters, is an accessible mental health resource for all ARHS students. BRYT is a general education intervention for students returning to school following extended absences due to medical/mental health issues. It was originally started in Brookline, MA 17 years ago and has been a part of ARHS for 14 years.

Even students that aren’t a part of the BRYT program can meet with Peters for short-term counseling sessions. Students often initially reach out to their guidance counselor if they feel they need extra support. And if students still feel they need more help after four to six sessions, she will help find them a counselor in the community. There have been more students using this resource compared to typical years, Peters noted.

“This year we have seen an increase in the number of students accessing individual counseling,” said Peters. “We probably have 35 students involved in some capacity of individual counseling and that is far greater than I’ve seen in the seven years I’ve worked at this school.”

“One of the overwhelming reasons for referral is the sense of isolation which is bringing up other things,” said Peters. “Because they are isolated, and teenagers are supposed to be connecting and engaging with others, it’s bringing up a lack of confidence, bringing up a lack of motivation, and other issues that stem from teenagers not being able to do the work that they’re supposed to do.”

In order to assist students that are struggling for the rest of the year, Peters stated the first thing we need to do is specifically identify what students are missing during remote learning. 

“It’s not necessarily that it’s just remote learning, it’s the things that they don’t have access to anymore that they used to. Students typically tell me ‘I feel isolated or ‘I don’t know how to get my questions answered when I need help,’” said Peters. “I then ask students to tell me more about what they’re missing [in remote learning].”

Peters noted that “it’s hard to fix problems as big as ‘remote learning sucks and I hate everything.’ Instead, together we pick one or two things to chip away at and we make a situation that is not ideal a little bit more manageable.”  

Peters has also been posting tips that could positively impact students’ mental health every week for “Wellness Wednesday” in the morning announcements. Students who would like support or to meet with their guidance counselor can click on the Virtual Guidance Office Link, navigate to their counselor’s “door,” and then schedule appointments by clicking on the calendar on the wall in that counselor’s office. They can also reach out to Peters at petersk@arps.org.