As COVID-19 vaccines roll out and more schools inch toward fully reopening for in-person instruction, educators and policymakers are rightly focused on getting students caught up academically.
But that will be only half of the battle.
The pandemic, combined with a massive experiment in remote schooling, a racial justice movement stemming from police killings of Black Americans, and economic and political instability will have long-term effects on schoolchildren’s mental health. For the foreseeable future, educators will have to grapple with a host of additional challenges that will complicate students’ abilities to learn, such as increased anxiety, substance abuse, and hyperactivity—all symptoms of the trauma many students have lived through this past year.
“Right off the bat we know that those stress reactions will make it harder for children to learn,” said Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center, and a specialist in childhood trauma. “One of the best predictors of how our children are going to do is based on how we’re doing as their parents and caregivers, and the pandemic has not left anyone un-stressed.”
Through her work, Gurwitch has witnessed firsthand the aftermath of mass shootings, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks. She was only a few years into her first job working as a child psychologist in Oklahoma City in 1995 when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed, killing 168 people in an act of domestic terrorism.
While this may be the first global pandemic that today’s schools have weathered, there are lessons that educators and policymakers can glean from other major disasters on how students will react and what kind of supports they will need.