K-12 Learning During a Pandemic: Why We Need to Slow Down for Mental Health’s Sake

Mar 24, 2020
5:19 PM

Anna Louisa, 18, receives her school laptop for home study at the Lower East Side Preparatory School as COVID-19 restrictions shuttered classrooms throughout New York City, Thursday, March 19, 2020. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Versión en español aquí.

COVID-19 isn’t the only pandemic in our nation. Over 46 million adults suffer from mental illness, with anxiety disorders, including depression, being the most common. What’s worse, mental illness hasn’t spared our children. One in six U.S. children between ages 6 and 17 has a mental illness such as depression or anxiety. Extensive social science research has shown that anxiety and depression are as much social as they are biological. Increasing demands at work, school, and the pressures of everyday life have contributed to the rising numbers of mental illness in the United States. Thanks to the coronavirus our worlds have been turned upside down over night, and because of that we are all more vulnerable, especially our children.

My 9-year-old son struggles with anxiety. He’s generally a calm kid but when anxiety is high he is more easily agitated, moody, and generally defiant. His symptoms are usually stomach aches and nausea, so I wasn’t surprised when he started complaining of pain the last week of school. It was the same week that the Houston Independent School District (HISD) would make the decision to close schools until the end of March due to the rising infection rates of COVID-19. My son, like all of his classmates, was hearing stories of COVID-19 causing deaths around the world, and some kids had even heard that they would be forced to finish school online.

I heard we would have to sit at the computer from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and not get up,” my son revealed one day at dinner.

“That’s not right, mom, we should at least get a break, right?” he asked genuinely concerned.

It seemed that what triggered the most anxiety for him wasn’t the virus, but instead the uncertainty of the many losses he might face in the upcoming days. Without even having a moment to address those concerns, the district closed its schools. Thursday night our children went to bed and Friday morning they found out they weren’t going back to school. While I was grateful for the extra hour of sleep, my child was shocked, and as I scrolled through my mommy group texts, it seemed so were many others. Soon after, we received news that schools would extend closures through April 10 and potentially longer. The losses continued, field trips, tutorials, practices and games, friend meet ups at recess, and best friend playdates during spring break all cancelled with no prospect of when they would return—some things lost forever.

As a medical anthropologist, I understand the real threat to health posed by the current pandemic; however, we must pause and also consider the potential mental health impact of our collective response.

Before political and education leaders jump to transfer our K-12 education online, or expect parents to suddenly homeschool their kids, we need to think about the mental health of our children (and their parents). Our children need time to understand what’s happening, to mitigate fears of the virus, and to cope with the important things they’re losing.

Some children will even lose family members when this is all over. They need time to grieve and accept that things may never be the same—to accept that they may never see their classmates or their teachers in the same classroom again. A canceled class or field trip may seem trivial given the circumstances, but these are the daily activities that are deeply meaningful and valuable to our children: to their sense of community and human connection and to their sense of stability.

This stability has been disrupted and we still don’t know when it will return. But that’s not all, for many children, school is a refuge from the stress of their homes, a place free of physical and/or psychological abuse. COVID-19 is infecting everything. With mental and emotional distress high for everyone right now, children are put at an even higher risk for abuse and trauma.

We need to slow down, accept that learning and the benchmarks that schools use to measure it will look different for some time to come, and most importantly check on the mental, emotional, and even spiritual well-being of our children.

We are in the middle of a global crisis. This is not a time to overwhelm kids (or parents) with worksheets, web-based homeschooling, and the push to stay on track for standardized tests or college prep. This is a time to model compassion. This is a time to make sure our children feel safe and loved, and to make sure families have time to adjust to a new normal.

At this moment, we have a critical opportunity and responsibility to teach, practice and model coping skills, so that the number of children that suffer from anxiety and depression doesn’t increase. Education leaders need to be flexible and transparent with families; remind parents that they can structure learning in any way that works and makes sense for their families. Remind families that you understand how much pressure we are all under, and that you don’t expect them to know how to homeschool their children overnight, while also doing everything else required of them to keep their families safe. Most importantly, please, remind parents that their only job right now is to love and support their children through this crisis. No parent or child should feel any pressure to stay on track with learning benchmarks during a global crisis. The level of collective trauma that will be left in the aftermath of COVID-19 is up to us.


Elizabeth Farfán-Santos, Ph.D. is a professor of anthropology at the University of Houston. She is a medical anthropologist, race scholar, and expert in the social, cultural, and political factors that impact health and illness. Her current research focuses on the medical alienation and exclusion of undocumented immigrant communities and the health of undocumented mothers. She tweets from @ChicanaAnthropo.