What are the mental health implications of long term e-learning (Covid-19) on younger aged school children? Especially those students from lower income areas with already limited resources? Will our nation’s children be able to bounce back mentally from this extended e-learning due to Covid-19?

With over 50 million  elementary and middle (secondary) students out of school in the US, several state governments have opted to extend virtual learning for students through the remainder of the year. As these unprecedented times continue due to Covid-19, public concern is rising regarding long term implications the pandemic will have on the nation’s children, especially those most vulnerable. 

Who are the most vulnerable children during Covid-19’s e-learning mandate?

It is no secret, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed deep rooted economic and societal issues this country had long camouflaged. Most recently shedding light on inequalities in the public education system. The hardest hit cities in the US have a largely diverse population of students including those who regularly rely on public services. For example, subsidized housing, federally funded health insurance or state administered resources like food stamps. All of which, have been affected because of Covid-19.

Even though these school closures are temporary, they unfortunately pack a high economic and social punch. Long term interruptions in the academic setting for younger aged children disturb family dynamic, childcare, nutrition and in turn can contribute to even more financial and mental strain during an already stressful time. Academic performance for younger children relies heavily on teacher-student relationships, especially for children of a disadvantaged background.

This includes children who may lack parental support at home, come from broken households, have parents/guardians with limited education themselves and domestic abuse/violence cases. These are children who already have less opportunities to advance beyond the school setting excluding the impact of Covid-19. Even after schools remain open, it is likely student drop out rates, engagement in violent incidents, child marriages, exploitation of girls, teen pregnancies and child labor will grow.

What do teachers on the front lines say?

I spoke with (Yusra Maan), 7th grade English teacher at Oak Lawn Hometown Middle School in Oak Lawn, Illinois, a south side suburb of Chicago. With firsthand exposure in the world of e-learning post Covid-19, she was able to provide insight as to what this means for our nation’s children. Oak Lawn Hometown students have individual Chromebooks to take home daily. In Ms. Maan’s class , online learning and interpersonal learning is split 50-50, ensuring interpersonal relationships among students and teachers. Post Covid-19, the entire teaching model forcefully shifted to e-learning based. 

“The issue is not so much that we are expected to continue the same level of education with very limited resources. The problem really is that those resources are not equally distributed. Every student has a Chromebook and can take it home. But the ‘exclusive e-learning’ model is designed for those families with resources. We have some students with less reliable internet access, students who are caretakers of siblings and unable to dedicate hours at a computer, or parents who are essential workers and unable to engage with their children.”

Health equity vs health equality

Post Covid-19, teachers post self-guided assignments for students to complete on Google Classroom. Additionally, teachers provide ‘open source’ or optional activities for students to finish with their parents. The problem lies with this being optional. Engagement rate of these students has dropped drastically since the sole e-learning model went live. Measuring the attendance is virtually impossible with a significant chunk of the work being optional. In public health speak, the term Ms. Maan is referring to is health equity. Meaning, just providing equal resources (in the form of Chromebooks) does not account for the unfair, social, economic, demographic, or geographic disparities. Health equity takes these factors into account when providing that ‘fair’ opportunity to achieve full health potential.

Those parents who are willing and able to dedicate their time to ensure their child is retaining the maximum through e-learning will do so. However, due to the various social implications, many parents are unable to do so. Nearly 44% of students in Oak Lawn Hometown Middle school identify with a low-income household, making them eligible to receive reduced (or free) lunches, public aid or substitute care. The parent’s priorities may lie elsewhere instead of optional assignments for no credit.

Long term mental health implications?

Cost efficient economics aside, a solely e-learning based school is not feasible. Teachers just like Ms. Maan are scrambling to account for vulnerable students who often fall into the cracks of the system. Now with the entire system being virtual, the cracks are inconspicuous making the mental health toll a public health concern. Some of these low-income students rely on services they cannot receive at home, for example free meals, and social support. 

“It’s hard enough for an adult to have to have to hold themselves accountable virtually, but for middle school students it is a separate conversation. Students are already having issues with weeks of no social interaction and no activity. This is not just an academic setting to some kids; it is a home away from home. These kids have not yet learned self-discipline. Without those tools, how can we expect them to be engaged for the entire day?”

What will the classroom look like post Covid-19?

Ms. Maan expects to devote most of the fall to reteaching the prior term come fall. New students will be coming in, requiring new teacher-student relationships. Given the uncertainty of each student’s (social) background, teachers nationwide will have to assume the kids have adequately learned the necessary skills from last quarters e-learning model. Students who spent the last several months with essentially no routine, will be briefly unaccustomed to a disciplined classroom setting. The need for constant social worker interaction within the classroom will likely increase, and teachers must dedicate more time to emotional support for their students.

“It is very frustrating to be on the sidelines in this case. As a teacher we absolutely have ‘the Savior Complex’, we want to save our students. Choosing to be an educator means you take that responsibility and hold yourself accountable. So, the uncertainty on whether these students are actually retaining what they are supposed to is real. The unpredictability of Covid-19 and how quickly we can get back to normal takes a toll on everyone, especially our students. Only time will tell how much we as teachers are going to have to pick up the broken pieces.”


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