In the first week of the new school year, first-grade teacher Chloe Bonnell was working with her students on a self-care journal to go over five things you can do when you are overwhelmed or have anxiety.
The journals were a key way to help her young kids get through the first days of a school year that is both historic and surreal, with the COVID-19 pandemic altering the way students have to interact and socialize, which can impact mental health.
In the continuing stresses of COVID-19, concerns over mental health have taken a front seat in the new school year.
Bonnell is a second-year teacher at Canopy Oaks Elementary School in the state capital, and she’s relieved that administrators made mental health a priority for her incoming first graders and older children during COVID-19.
“Our administration told us that ‘mental health comes first,’ which I was very happy of — because I, myself, am a huge advocate for mental health,” Bonnell shared with the Florida Phoenix.
At the Leon County School District, Bonnell said her school spent the first two weeks focusing on ensuring students feel safe and supported when they returned from a hectic end to the 2019-20 school year.
“When they left, they had to leave all of a sudden on a Friday, and they never came back,” she said. “So, I tried my best to make my classroom and my curriculum as warm and inviting as possible.”
Before the start of school, the nonprofit America’s Promise Alliance released survey results about increasing concerns for middle and high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report suggests those students are experiencing collective trauma, over the health of their family, finances and their own education during the pandemic.
And in a televised address to families this summer, Gov. Ron DeSantis cited concerns about keeping schools closed, which would “foster more social isolation, depression and anxiety.”
Eric Sparks, assistant director of American School Counselors Association, said socialization is important not only to mental health, but to general developmental skills.
“There’s so many skills that students develop by socializing with others — including things like collaboration and cooperation skills, teamwork skills,” he told the Florida Phoenix.
But with the continuous threat of COVID-19 transmission, school administrators, teachers, and counselors will need to collaborate using social distancing protocols to ensure students can safely learn in brick-and-mortar classrooms.
“It’s really going to be dependent on schools getting creative on how to give students those opportunities to interact with each other, while following the guidelines that are set,” Sparks said.
That said, when some districts released videos on how schools might work when students returned, many parents were unsure if students would get to socialize at all.
On July 21, the Clay County school district released a video showcasing their Smart Restart summer program that implemented social distancing measures for 400 students across seven elementary schools.
This video shows students standing six feet apart or sitting at a near empty cafeteria table. Very few masks are seen in the Clay County video.
SUMMER RECOVERY PROGRAM | Nearly 400 students are currently participating in our #SmartRestart Summer Recovery Program across seven elementary schools. Here's a snapshot of how students are learning on campus. pic.twitter.com/rf61qDXo2n
— Clay County District Schools (@oneclayschools) July 21, 2020
In Leon, Bonnell’s students, like most other students learning in brick-and-mortar settings this year, had to learn the new rules of the classroom.
At Canopy Oaks, students do not need to wear masks if they are spaced six feet a part. In Bonnell’s classroom, her 12 first-grade students have five feet of space in between their desks — so, they wear their masks.
“We do mask breaks, we do hand-washing breaks…they can’t share materials, they each have their own water bottles so we don’t use the classroom water fountain,” she said, adding that one of the parents donated an automatic water dispenser to help with refilling the water bottles.
For downtime, her students are expected to use social distancing as they play outside and indoors– which Bonnell says they do fairly well. Each of her students have individual Play-Doh to play with, rather than sharing with friends.
When a student is finished reading a classroom book, the book does not go back on the shelf until Bonnell has disinfected it.
But in Ms. Bonnell’s classroom, she said her students are, indeed, making friends while social distancing.
“That’s definitely something I worried about,” she said. “I’m so proud of all of my kids… they have been so kind to each other.”
While the first few weeks have been functional for her, Bonnell is still looking out for signs that students are struggling with their mental or emotional health.
“The things I notice in my classroom is when students say that they want to go home. Then, I’ll ask them ‘do you know why you want to go home?’ Most of the time, I’m hearing ‘I want to go home because I have my IPad’ or ‘I can watch TV,'” she said.
“In my opinion, they’re stuck on that summer mode and they don’t realize why they have to come back to school after being out for six months.”
She is also teaching her kids how they can check in on themselves when they are getting stressed. For example, her classroom uses a journal to help address their emotional and mental states.
The journals helped Bonnell’s students identify ways to take care of their mental health, such as taking breaks when they get overwhelmed.
“So we would do a journal writing that says ‘When I feel upset, I take a break by…’ and they would fill in the blank and draw a picture of it.”