HomeCity NewsDuring Pandemic, Psychological Toll High for Students

During Pandemic, Psychological Toll High for Students

Often removed from the nuts-and-bolts operations of a school district during the COVID-19 pandemic are the basic needs of its students, and the San Marino school board heard a presentation from two experts in the field of socio-emotional wellness at its meeting on Jan. 26.
Tonya El-Hendi, a counselor at San Marino High School, and Larry Wong, a licensed marriage and family therapist, provided insight into the condition of students who are approaching one year of isolation because of the coronavirus pandemic from their peers, teachers and many of those whom they interact with regularly during extracurricular activities.

“Our obvious concern is our academics for our kids, but actually for their development psychologically, it’s a very valuable event just to go to school,” Wong said during the virtual meeting. “It helps them with routine, it helps them with structure, helps them learn to develop social interaction skills and friendships, ultimately. What’s sort of salient in that is also in a classroom setting how they learn to self-regulate themselves in their behavior.
“You learn by being around other peers. That if you are in a classroom and you feel the need to act in a certain way but you observe from your peers that they are not acting out inappropriately, that helps you learn to regulate yourself.”
Wong said that the challenges of normal socialization are often magnified due to the “isolated setting” in which young people now find themselves because of distance learning. The San Marino Unified School District closed its campuses on March 13, and aside from some small groups of students occasionally permitted to participate in classes and athletic trainings, most others have remained at their homes.
“It just isn’t a substitute for the kind of learning psychologically, that kids really need by going to school,” Wong said. “When you then ask a kid to learn how to regulate themselves by staring at a computer screen, you can imagine for some kids that’s really, really hard. Online learning really makes it challenging to learn these basic skills to regulate yourself and that is why peer influence is such a huge factor in the learning process for kids. There are other kids who are doing fine in this process. The simplest way to look at that is everybody is different. … It’s just important to know that the goal is whenever the state, the county, everybody else says it’s OK to go back to school, that’s really an important goal for these psychological reasons, child development reasons.”
El-Hendi agreed, saying there are “varying degrees of how students are adjusting.”
“Teachers are trying to create situations where students can share their personality,” she said. “That is one of the big components that is missing for our kids now. Is that feedback they get from peers on things about them that makes them unique. When we are all on a computer screen, all of our uniqueness is gone. And you don’t have many opportunities to display it. So that’s really important how we get feedback when we bring those assets out into our peer environment.”
El-Hendi said that young people are having different results mostly based on their age. She said that for elementary school children, distance learning “is a blast” because they have parent interaction they normally wouldn’t have when they go to school.
It’s a different challenge for middle and high school students, according to El-Hendi.
“They are missing that passing time to talk about nothing, but throw out a comment that suggests that they are having a hard time that then stimulates a conversation,” she said. “Now there is no way to pass a comment unless you deliberately reach out and make yourself vulnerable. So it’s creating this barrier for students to do that.”
Like Wong, El-Hendi said that students are experiencing challenges in fully developing their identity.
“We have to retool our social-emotional way we address that,” she said. “How do we retool our safety net because how we are identified looks different? Because you can see a student in person. They walk in, their gait’s different, their posture, everything about them shows something is going on, which can stimulate a conversation from a teacher. But now we don’t have that. We don’t see them walk in. So we have those added challenges and as educators we have to be creative. How do we create those safe spaces? To say ‘be vulnerable with me’ and reach out. Right now, our main mode of communication is email, and it’s limiting.”
Said Wong: “It’s challenging. Creativity is very important. The creative things teachers are doing helps kids to feel noticed. In that sense it feeds into a sense of autonomy. If they can be noticed by their teachers, that is what they are missing while they are not in the classroom. That encourages their sense of competence. If they are noticed by their teachers, they feel better about themselves and will feel a little more motivated to take care of their assignments.”
Shelley Ryan, school board president, encouraged parents to reach out to El-Hendi and Wong if they had questions about the behavior of their children.
Additionally, the board heard a report on the governor’s 2021-22 proposed budget, for which Linda de la Torre, assistant superintendent of administrative services, said “there is much to celebrate” in the realm of education.
The SMUSD can expect to see a 3.84% increase in the COLA (cost of living adjustment), raising the amount of state funding for each high school student in the district from $9,239 in 20-21 to $9,687, for example, if the projections are accurate. The state budget includes a $960,000 increase in LCFF (local control funding formula) revenues and will allow the district to apply for a $1.8 million expanded learning time grant and a safe reopening grant that could bring $1,287,900 to the district, or $450 per student based on current enrollment. The SMUSD must file an application with Los Angeles County Office of Education, and de la Torre said that the funds might be available even if the county remains in the purple tier and is not able to immediately reopen schools.
“We are very delighted that this money is likely to be available to the district, most of which is one-time money,” de la Torre said. “But also want to just caution everyone that we have a lot of tentative funds in our budget like Measure E. We have $4 million factored into our budget that is tied to Measure E. So if Measure E were not to pass, we would have to back that out of our budget and that would be a real challenge for us.”
Stephen Choi, assistant superintendent, provided an update on the district’s COVID-19 compliance team and said there are no current revisions to protocols. Choi said the district was prepared to resume in-person instruction for high-need students as well as youth sports activities, which had been suspended by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
“We are all ready to go,” Choi said.
He also said a recent survey of district employees showed that 94% said they plan to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s their turn.

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