Staff Ed: mental health may not improve if school returns in-person

Many students have struggled with mental health during the pandemic and online school, but returning to school may not be the best option for improvement.

Shorewood High School shut down due to the coronavirus on March 12, 2020. Students were supposed to be gone for two weeks, but those weeks turned into months. One year later, on March 12, 2021, Washington governor Jay Inslee issued a statement that K-6 education must have a hybrid option for students by April 5, 2021, and the rest of students must have a hybrid option by April 19, 2021.

Although some may believe it, opening school back up will not suddenly make mental health better for students. Further, mental health surrounding fear of the coronavirus could actually worsen while students are back to school without large numbers of vaccinations.

The main reason to return to school given by Inslee was that “we have experienced a mental-health crisis for many of our children,” and that “this will provide them an option that suits their needs, and their families.” Mental health, particularly for teenagers, has been an ongoing debate, and it seems that Inslee may not have taken into account that mental health could also be adversely affected by going back to school, or knowing others are. 

Students have a lot of fear surrounding the pandemic including that themselves, their family members, their friends, or their teachers could get sick with coronavirus. Going back or seeing peers go back to school before the majority of Washingtonians are vaccinated, could make them worry more, worsening mental health.

Some students will not be returning because they or their family members are immunocompromised, they feel their peers will not be COVID safe, or they have elderly family members in their home, among other reasons. Staying home while others are returning may make online students feel even more lonely and left out.

Even the students who do return may not see their mental health improve because the hybrid model doesn’t allow for any socialization. The in-person classes are quite short, the passing periods are five minutes long, and there is no lunch. Social time is one of the main reasons many students want, or wanted, to return. Health improves with social time, so without it, mental health may be stagnant.

Additionally, the logistics of meeting with counselors in-person may be difficult and counselors are typically focused on academic needs, not mental health needs. Even though many students are struggling, no mental health counselors or any school counselors are expected to be added. Thus, there is no clear way for mental health to improve with in-person schooling.

Shorewood administration and staff must make an extra effort to be safe, making sure online students are not left out, and offering mental health services. Without these focuses, mental health will not improve significantly for students. 

Mental health is a necessary conversation to have with all people, especially teenagers. We cannot stop the conversation as soon as school opens back up. This is not an easy fix; it is a complex issue, and should be dealt as such.