Local school boards recognize mental health toll of pandemic uncertainty on students

WELLINGTON COUNTY – As students once again settle in to online learning amid another surge in COVID-19 cases, school board officials say they recognize the toll the constant uncertainty of the pandemic is having on students’ mental health. 

On Jan. 3 Premier Doug Ford announced the return to in-person learning would be delayed for two weeks, until Jan. 17. 

In an interview with the Advertiser, Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) mental health lead Jenny Marino said switching back and forth is difficult for everybody, specifically families trying to manage work and kids, but particularly for young children. 

“I think first and foremost, we have to recognize that everybody’s going to experience this differently,” Marino said. 

“And certainly, some of our equity seeking groups are going to have a much stronger impact from these kinds of oscillating requirements from the government.”

Not only has the pandemic had an impact on students, Marino explained, it’s also had a large impact on staff, particularly those with kids of their own, as they do their best to adapt and support students with these transitions. 

“There’s a lot of different ways that it impacts everybody, and I think one of the biggest things is the constant ambiguity of this pandemic,” Marino explained.

“Nothing’s ever concrete.”

Marino said when people know what to expect, it can help to mitigate some of the stress by having different strategies to cope, but the constant uncertainty challenges those abilities. 

“This ongoing, on, off, on and off, it can really impact our ability to cope,” she explained.

“We know that maintaining routines is a really core way that we can support our own and our students’ mental health.

“The educators in all of our boards are working really hard to maintain that level of consistency and connection and work and support within this environment,” she added. 

“But I’m not going to lie, it’s hard.”

Marino noted kids and youth are able to manage change and adapt much better than adults in many ways, “but that doesn’t preclude them from feeling extremely anxious and impacted.”

She added it’s important to get the messaging out and remember that a lot of work has been done at the board and collectively as a community to create a strong foundation to support staff and students during this time. 

“These are really vital pieces of the role that we play,” she explained.

“Remember that we do have a strong community of connection, and we have a lot of wonderful resources in our communities.

“This is not an easy time for anybody, but I do believe strongly that we are doing the best we can in the situation that we’re in.”

Marino said the impacts the pandemic will have on students will vary greatly depending on their age and may include effects like learning struggles and social loss for some students, while others may be worried about their academic progress in relation to applying for post-secondary education. 

She also noted these continuous shifts to online learning can have different impacts on families and kids. 

“For some home is not necessarily a safe place, and now they’re forced to be at home and for others, the parents are in such added stress [because] they don’t have kids that can take care of themselves. 

“So they have no choice but to stay home,” she explained. “And this can have a great impact all the way down to what you can put in your fridge.”

Marino said one of the most common challenges she hears about during this time is managing, whether that be managing a household, childcare, work and financing. 

“Those kinds of things are big stressors in this acute point of where we’re at right now,” she explained. “On top of the already stressors that exist for our families.”

For students struggling and looking for support, Marino recommends they explore ways the board can support in an individualized way by going to the board’s website or by looking at their school-based website.

She also wants to remind students they’re not alone and to reach out if they need help. 

Students feeling impacts of pandemic fatigue

In an emailed response, Sony Brar, mental health lead and manager of student mental health services at the Wellington Catholic District School Board (WCDSB), said one of the big challenges for students, families and staff is the accumulation of feeling run down after the last two years.

“This has been a long, hard two years for our children and teens; they were already quite tired when they returned in the fall and so I imagine the accumulation of this exhaustion is likely difficult for our students,” she explained. 

“Pivoting to online learning is likely exasperating those already-existing feelings.”

At the same time, Brar noted, many students seem to be managing the shift as best they can. Some students even prefer remote learning. 

“Online learning can be quite stressful for our students, their families, and our staff to juggle,” Brar acknowledged.

“We know that we are designed in a way where our brains require human interaction and connection. 

“Although our staff are working incredibly hard to provide these connections as much as possible, it is still not the same as in-person interactions and learning. This can be quite stressful and isolating for some.”

Brar said staff recognize the impact of online learning on students and families and are continuing to work to prioritize wellbeing throughout the school year, specifically during the current period of online learning. 

“Shifting back and forth from anything with the level of uncertainty we have experienced these last couple of years would increase symptoms of anxiety in many of us, our children, and our families,” Brar said of the added anxiety many students may be experiencing.

“Our children and teens have lost a great deal of ‘normalcy,’” she added. “Naturally, this has the potential to increase symptoms of anxiety in any one of us.”

For caregivers, Brar said it’s important to acknowledge how they’re feeling, prioritize the wellbeing of their family and remind themselves it’s okay to say no to expectations that are unrealistic and not manageable.

“For students, it’s important to check in with yourself, acknowledge the many different emotions and feelings you’re experiencing and know that it’s normal, it’s to be expected, especially given these difficult circumstances.”

Similar to UGDSB, Brar said a common challenge the board is hearing from families is the ability to juggle their children’s online learning “with limited support and little rest.”

This challenge is also common among staff, who are working hard to support their classroom in online learning while having their own young children at home, who they also need to support, Brar added. 

WCDSB’s mental health services are continuing to provide virtual care to its elementary and secondary students. If your child needs support, Brar asks that you reach out to your child’s teacher and/or principal and they can connect you with appropriate supports.

In partnership with Upper Grand, WCDSB offers the Umbrella Project, which has a monthly focus on a theme that promotes skill development and resiliency. 

The theme for the month of January is empathy, which Marino noted is “really apropos because it’s really a time for us to understand that everybody’s going to be having different experiences.

“And we must come into that with an openness and a willingness to try and understand different people’s experiences without judgments,” she explained. 

“It’s important now more than ever to practice being empathetic, kind and patient with one another as we navigate this journey with online learning together,” Brar added. 

To view other mental health services and supports available, visit the UGDSB and WCDSB websites.