As COVID-19 disrupted school for children statewide, many educators were focused on maintaining academic progress. That’s certainly important. But in my experience, as a public charter school teacher in Austin, it’s impossible to do that without paying special attention to the mental health of students.
Every year, I ask my juniors and seniors about their preferred method of communication with their friends and families. While some might think their answer would be texting or video chat, this year it was not. In fact, every year since I have asked this question, my students have said personal, face-to-face, in-person communication is their top choice. Its absence due to the current crisis is deeply concerning.
In a recent national survey of parents conducted by the National Parents Union, 56% said that they were concerned about their children’s’ mental health and emotional wellbeing as a result of the pandemic. Strikingly, more than 50% of parents were concerned about their own emotional wellbeing. A mental health crisis is upon us.
While much of the media coverage in education has been about the difficulties schools faced while transitioning to teaching virtually and using technology in entirely new ways, that was not my biggest concern as a teacher. I am no expert in virtual teaching, but I knew my students were about to lose the social interactions normally found at school, and I could see the emotional challenges to come—caused by increasing isolation—that would impact their mental health and ability to learn.
But there is good news on the horizon as we look to what is possible this fall. Nationally, 71% of parents are confident that their child’s school will be able to provide the resources to support their child’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. And teachers by their nature are creative and innovative. When supported by school leaders who value their contributions and provide them with the flexibility to meet the individual needs of the students in their classroom, teachers will rise to the occasion and amazing things will happen for kids and communities.
Every day this spring I saw this happen at Chaparral Star Academy. From our counselor providing students with tangible coping skills to deal with the impact of social distancing on their mental health, to teachers and students sharing pictures of their pets and stories about their families deepening bonds between kids and trusted adults, to teachers sharing video messages about how much we missed seeing our students in person, to finding new and fun ways to engage in academics like Zoom scavenger hunts—I saw it all. Our teachers, trusted and supported by our leaders, found many new and unique ways to engage students. They did not feel alone and were not overwhelmed by the events going on around them.
There is no question we will have much to talk about with our students when we are together again. From the personal impact of COVID-19 on their individual families to collaborating on changes to ensure racial equity in our communities, we are just beginning to address all that our students have heard, seen and faced. But I know we will get through this time of uncertainty together because of the relationships we have developed and our commitment to focusing on our school community’s wellbeing.
I believe our most important job as educators right now is to be there for our students. While I know some teachers may be trying to decide whether returning to the classroom is the right choice for them, there is no question where I will be when schools reopen. I am where I am meant to be. I am glad I found Chaparral Star Academy all those years ago and my hope is that every student, parent and teacher in our state has a community that embraces them like ours does. We will continue to be there for our students and their families. We will continue to focus on academics while prioritizing social and mental wellbeing. We will get through this together.
Aryn van Steijn is the high school Spanish teacher at Chaparral Star Academy in Austin, Texas. She is a mother of two young boys. She met their Dutch father while studying in Panamá. She enjoys cooking, podcasts, and connecting with other moms in the Austin area who are also raising bilingual children.