This is the first of a four-part special report. 

PITTSTON — Molly Donovan enrolled her two school-aged children in the state of Maine’s homeschooling program after they expressed fears and anxieties about going to school during the coronavirus pandemic.

Her children, ages 5 and 6, attended Pittston-Randolph Consolidated School and were not only afraid of themselves getting sick, but were worried that Donovan and her partner would get sick and die from COVID-19.

This led Donovan to look into homeschooling so her children would have some sort of consistency in their lives. However, the children missed the social interactions that came with going to school and constantly asked Donovan if they could see their peers or attend their karate classes again.

“They would rather be at school with their friends,” Donovan said. “But they understand that this gives them more of a solid routine, which they do like, but they miss seeing people and having interactions every day.”

The number of mental-health related emergency room visits has increased from 24% for ages 5 to 11, and 31% for ages 11 to 17 from January to October of last year, according to the U.S. Center For Disease Control & Prevention. The CDC released information on its website about the stress that pandemics can cause on individuals.

Like other parents, when her children asked, Donovan did not have any consistent answers that she could give them on when activities and daily life would go back to the way it was before the pandemic.

They did not like learning virtually over Zoom and were unable to sit still for more than five minutes. It caused her kids to constantly worry, and in some cases, act out from the stress, according to Donovan.

“They are acting out because they are so isolated,” Donovan said. “My oldest daughter spent the morning crying because she just wants to play with her friends. She wishes that the virus would have never come and she’s not that old, she’s only 6. For her to experience all this anxiety and stress, it’s terrifying.”

Donovan thinks that the anxiety is from the “isolation,” and said that the kids “need the social interaction.”

Maria Frankland, lecturer of education leadership at the University of Maine, said unexpected changes in routine are impacting most students during the pandemic. Students generally rely on school for a consistency in their lives, whether it be socializing with friends, playing a sport or getting breakfast in the cafeteria every morning, she said.

“When we came back to school this year, there was a lot of hope that things would go back to what has been the normal,” Frankland said. “One of the challenges is that school doesn’t look like the way it used to. The building is different, the learning is different, and even though people understand why, people were ready to go back to what the normal way of school was.”

UNCERTAIN SCHEDULES

In a regular year, students had an idea of what the next day would bring — they may have a presentation or even a sports game. Now with schools moving in and out of hybrid and remote learning from possible COVID-19 cases, the fate of tomorrow is often unclear for most.

“When things happen that are unexpected, it can have a negative impact on students and families,” Frankland said. “You’re looking at a disruption of relationships; students and peers; students and teachers; students and coaches, not only by social distance but by social modality.”

Frankland points out that not only are school schedules disrupted, but now sports teams and clubs are, too.

Donovan’s young children take karate and have music lessons and are no longer able to participate in them because of the pandemic.

The schools in MSAD 11, where Donovan’s children previously attended, moved in and out of a red, fully remote model this past fall and early winter. When they weren’t in red, the schools would conduct classes in a yellow, hybrid model, having half of the students for half of the week and switching after Wednesdays.

Sarah Adkins, seen at her home in Pittston, attributes much of her children’s stress during the pandemic to disruptive school schedules. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Students, like Sarah Adkins’ son, George, who is a senior at Gardiner Area High School, missed his football season because of the constant switch between yellow and green. Adkins said that with George graduating in the spring, he feels like he has no connection to the school, especially since he hasn’t seen his friends because of the pandemic.

“School is not his thing at all — he’s kind of looked at it as free time,” she said, then paraphrasing his feelings as: “I don’t like online, therefore I don’t like the format of the delivery or instruction, so why should I do it?”

In the past, he at least had sports, she said, but now that he had a glimpse of what it is like to work 40 hours a week and have a job, he’s ready for after graduation.

Since George does not like learning online, it has been difficult for him, along with Adkins’ other kids — two juniors in high school and a son in fourth grade, to manage the number of assignments on Google Classrooms.

“He’s a kid that gets overwhelmed with tasks and he sees all of the assignments and doesn’t know how to organize his email,” she said. “It’s overwhelming for kids — they haven’t acquired those skills yet. Even as adults we have to write lists.”

For Donovan, as Adkins’ can attest, she attributes some of her children’s stress to that disruptive school schedule.

Donovan works 40 hours a week, along with “many” hours of overtime, so she is not always able to help her kids with their schooling.

When they ask her how long remote learning will last, she could not tell them what to expect, as she herself did not know most of the time. There is no timeline that she can tell her children that the pandemic will end, or when there will be a sense of normalcy.

“Younger students, they sense how the adults in their world are feeling and reacting to things,” Frankland said. “If the adults are scared and nervous, they are going to be too, even if they don’t know why.”

Frankland said that this is more prevalent with younger children as older students can watch the news and make informed decisions on what to think or believe. The feeling could cause children to act out, exactly like how Donovan’s daughter was crying and hysterical from the stress that she felt.

“Parents know their children best,” Frankland said. “We want them to watch for warning or crisis signs if they are more depressed or more withdrawn, or more quiet.”

LACK OF SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT

In addition to routines and the fear of uncertainty, students are missing out on key social developmental periods.

Jill Cote is a professor of early childhood studies and psychology at both Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield and Thomas College. She has four children, all school-aged. Her three eldest children go to Maine Arts Academy and her younger daughter, an 11-year-old, goes to Dresden Elementary School.

Cote emphasizes the importance of a child going to school to have social interactions among peers and teachers. She said that not only being away from people can delay these skills but so can stress that a child has because their priority is not on learning.

“In education, we call it scuffing,” she said. “They have to master a certain skill and if they are missing out on those key pieces, from say, stress at home, or chaos from watching the media, they may not be able to form social skills. They are going to be very behind.”

She gave the examples of learning how to read facial expressions or watching a teacher when they pronounce words. When Cote teaches and students wear their masks, sometimes she doesn’t know if her students were able to understand what she is instructing them.

Children not knowing the social cues or correct social behavior may lead to self esteem issues, she said, or even in some cases, anxiety or stress.

“If you have a child that is bright and gifted but have their social and emotional skills delayed, they will level out if they don’t feel comfortable raising their hand,” she said. “If they don’t have self esteem, or a sense of community, or are worried about what people think and they don’t raise their hand to ask a question, they are missing out on a key part of learning.”

In order to have her children feel a sense of normalcy again, Sarah Adkins enrolled her two sons in a cross-country skiing community program that meets once a week in Gardiner.

She said that when the boys saw their friends, they ran over to give hugs, looking like they were going to burst into tears.

“They have that connection through organized activity,” Adkins said, noting that through enrolling her sons in the skiing program, she could see an increase in their moods.

After the ski meeting, Adkins had to fill out the MSAD 11 survey to see if parents were in favor of slowly transitioning back to in person learning, four days a week. She said that her two boys, who originally did not want anything to do with school, wanted to be back in person, just to see their friends.

Adkins knows how important it is for students to be in school and said that she believes it’s the “safest place” for students to be right now.

For Donovan, she feels like homeschooling is a “more realistic” choice for her children, but that eventually she would like to have them go back to public school.

Her children aren’t exactly thrilled with homeschooling because they want to see their friends, but the consistency in not switching between hybrid and remote learning models has been beneficial for them in reliving some anxieties.

“It’s a lot for a young kid to take in,” Donovan said. “And it’s lasted a lot longer than anyone has thought.”

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