Going back to school in a pandemic challenges our children’s mental health. Here’s how you can help | Opinion

August 21, 2020 6:30 am

By Kim Krawczyk and Liza Piekarsky

Back to school can be stressful for many children in normal times — but back to school during a pandemic is ratcheting up the stress to new heights for parents, students, and teachers.

I’m an expert on trauma in the classroom, but not by choice. Two and a half years ago on February 14, 2018, my life changed forever when a gunman killed 17 people, including my friends, colleagues, and students, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

I survived along with 25 students who hid with me in my classroom as the gunfire raged outside. We’ve stayed close ever since, meeting monthly pizza or donuts and keeping in touch through our group chat. We are bonded a shared experience that permanently changed us.

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Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has kept us physically apart for months, forcing my students and me to resort to Zoom catchups. All the while, my colleagues in the teaching profession and I have come to accept that our roles have come to entail providing mental health strength and support to many of our students who have suffered because of the pandemic — by losing loved ones, experiencing the illness themselves, or feeling the effects of job loss and tightened budgets at home.

Research is quantifying the effects that the pandemic is having on all Americans: Nearly 41% of adults reported struggling with mental health issues or turning to substances to cope with the stresses brought on by COVID-19, according to a recent CDC report. The picture was even bleaker for young adults: Nearly 75% of those surveyed in June reported at least one mental health issue.

Fortunately, there are some solutions for teachers, students, and parents, says Liza Piekarsky, LMHC, a counselor who works at Retreat Behavioral Health, a mental health and substance abuse treatment provider in Ephrata.

Most importantly, contact your doctor or trusted mental health professional if you are concerned that your child is suffering. Talking to a therapist or counselor can help students overcome their struggles and develop helpful coping mechanisms for the future. We have found that many of the Parkland teens who have sought treatment are adjusting better to the stressors of the pandemic.

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What’s more, Liza suggests, it’s vital that we make time for our kids to do things that help them feel relaxed and rejuvenated. Self-care activities aren’t one size fits all, but there are plenty of activities that can help kids adjust. Younger children should have time to play, get creative with art, and run around outside. On the other hand, older kids might find relief by exercising, journaling, or meditating. Kids of any age will certainly benefit from social interaction, whether at home with family or over Zoom with friends.

If they’re having a tough time adjusting, Liza recommends reminding your kids that we’re all doing our best to cope with the constant changes we’re experiencing — so they shouldn’t compare their journey to anyone else’s.

To amplify these messages and provide helpful solutions, Liza and I are teaming up with Retreat Behavioral Health in Ephrata, Pa. for a live virtual panel discussion called The New ‘Back to School’ on Wednesday, August 26 at 7 p.m., where we will discuss the mental health ramifications of being back in the classroom, whether in-person or virtually.

We’ll take questions from parents to help them navigate the challenges of this difficult time and find ways to start the year off right.

In 2018, my 25 students and I survived an event that changed us permanently, but living through the shooting taught me one important lesson that applies to life in this pandemic: The answer for triumphing over trauma is finding ways to come together as a community- even while physically staying apart.

Kim Krawczyk is a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Liza Piekarsky is a licensed mental health counselor at Retreat Behavioral Health in Ephrata, Pa.

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