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Distance learning poses a challenge to young students' mental health amid coronavirus

On top of a summer quarantining, some students struggle to adjust to going "back to school" via virtual classrooms.

CALIFORNIA, USA — Distance learning is the best way to keep families safe during the coronavirus pandemic while educating the younger population, but it is not without its challenges. 

For teachers, transitioning an in-person curriculum online while still educating dozens of different learners has been difficult. For parents, juggling work-from-home with virtual learning has been the circus act of the century. 

But for students, the challenges are just beginning once virtual class is in session. 

"If you are a kid who's been attending school in the traditional way, in-person, and now you have to shift, and of course, your parents have to shift to you doing it at home, that's new. That's stressful," said Dr. Mark Edelstein, child and adolescent psychiatrist and medical director of Uplift Family Services. "That is something that we can expect to cause some degree of anxiety. Maybe just mild. Maybe a lot."

Already, as more schools "re-open" for virtual learning, some parents and teachers are seeing some signs of poor mental health.

Credit: Elk Grove parent Kevin Bitnoff

Kevin Bitnoff, who is raising four girls all under the age of 10, has struggled with the aggressive screentime to which his two oldest are now subjected. He worries for their mental health. 

"We don't allow our kids to be sitting there watching TV all day, and so to be sitting there for four hours on Zoom, even as an adult, that's extremely hard to do, let alone a child," Bitnoff said. 

Bitnoff's two oldest daughters are doing distance learning through Elk Grove Unified School District, which began school on August 3.

Credit: Elk Grove parent Kevin Bitnoff

"The amount of stress and depression of these kids that has set in...it's saddening," Bitnoff said.

For kids who are already prone to depression or anxiety, or who are already having difficulties in their social relationships, Dr. Edelstein is concerned, especially as academics start to become another hurdle in that child's life.

And while the academic side is a huge point of stress, Dr. Edelstein says that is just the starting point of a larger problem that distance learning poses for young students. 

"What you're learning in school is not necessarily the content that the teacher is presenting, right?" Dr. Edelstein said. "But you learn about your role as a student and as a citizen, as a friend. You may have a mentor at school. You certainly get a lot of support if you've got good friends there."

It may sound contradictory, but there is so much more to school than just learning. 

Valeria Correia, a Modesto parent with a school-aged daughter, is experiencing much the same as Bitnoff when it comes to virtual learning.

“She’s struggling," Correia said. "Like, every morning, it’s tears. It’s a fight to get on the computer.”

Correia's daughter, Scarlet, is a third grader in Modesto City Schools, which began classes on August 10. She says it's her friends she misses most. 

"I don't really like it that much because it's really hard and I like seeing my friends and playing with them," Scarlet said. 

Dr. Edelstein provides some feedback for how parents and teachers can make sure their students are adjusting in a healthy way to our new normal. 

"I would encourage parents and teachers to check in proactively with students and ask, 'How are you doing with this?' And to make sure students understand that it's normal to have some difficulty making the adjustment."

Dr. Edelstein also suggests finding other resources that can help with academics, such as free tutoring tools and helpful learning resources. 

In-person social interaction is a key factor as well. While kids should continue to stay safe during the pandemic, young people can visit each other as long as they continue to stay socially distant and wear masks. Playing sports, taking a walk, or just hanging out (six feet apart) are good ways to stay safe.

For those who are continuing to quarantine, playing video games, watching movies and communicating via social media can all be healthy ways to stay in touch with friends. 

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