Students came back from the pandemic different -- what happened?
Pamplin Media Group special report
Two months into the current school year, teachers and administrators at Reynolds Middle School in Fairview recognized a problem.
Students were more disruptive in class. Fights were breaking out and teachers observed a heightened level of stress dysregulation — an inability to manage emotional responses — among students. Teachers there said the conditions inside classrooms had reached a boiling point, preventing them from effectively teaching.
In an attempt to regroup and address the school's social climate, the school closed for nearly three weeks in mid-November, sending students back to distance learning temporarily.
"We are finding that some students are struggling with the socialization skills necessary for in-person learning, which is causing disruption in school for other students," Reynolds School District Superintendent Danna Diaz wrote in a message to families, saying isolation and shifts in learning methods brought on by COVID-19 had taken a toll on student and staff wellbeing.
While the solutions deployed in Fairview to address a fractured school climate — essentially, a schoolwide time out — may have been unique, the issues are not. Since the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year, school districts throughout Oregon have said students are exhibiting more signs of pandemic-related stress and inappropriate behavior.
Different schools, same problems
At Roseway Heights Middle School in Portland last fall, repeated fights caused lockdowns and lockouts and students reported sexual harassment from their peers, leading to a student walk-out and calls for more resources there.
In December, Portland's Roosevelt High School went on lockdown after one student reportedly tried to rob another student off-campus. That same month, some schools in the Portland metro region had to implement emergency safety measures after a social media trend encouraged students to call in bomb threats and school shootings.
Teachers at nearly every grade level have described this as the most challenging year of their career. They say student behavior in classrooms is notably different this year.
Ian Maurer is a math teacher at Cleveland High School in Portland who teaches freshmen and an advanced math class for juniors and seniors. Maurer said this year, freshman exhibited behaviors similar to those of middle schoolers.
"The way they came in at the beginning of the year, just felt like I was teaching immature seventh graders," Maurer said. "They were very closed off from each other, they didn't have the necessary supplies, they were hyper … there were just a lot of immature behaviors. There were also some safety concerns with students getting into it with each other. People were really awkward, really anxious, really unsure of how to be. They've come a long way since the beginning of the year, but we aren't where we need to be for your average freshman."
Matt Sten also teaches at Cleveland High School. He's been teaching for nearly 30 years and has four kids of his own. Sten said the classroom environment "has changed entirely."
"Students were away for a year and a half," Sten said. "I think many, many students were isolated, were unsupervised, were away from authority, which is to say, someone who said, 'you need to do this at a certain time. These hours need to be used in this way, you need to do these assignments.' Not to a fault of their parents, because they're busy working and doing all kinds of things."
Sten said, throughout distance learning, many students kept their cameras off during class, meaning even less interaction between students and teachers.
"I'm teaching to a field of icons, no faces," he said.
Melissa Evers, a seventh-grade teacher at Lakeridge Middle School in Lake Oswego and mother of two, said students and teachers are exhausted. Evers said common behaviors she's noticing include heightened anxiety, stress, and exhaustion. And her seventh-graders also are showing behaviors common in fifth graders, like immaturity, not understanding boundaries, or handling conflict as if they are still "on the playground."
"Students need routine, they need consistency, and they thrive under that," she said. "So by completely removing that, what we see generally is either inward behavior, and that's a lot of anxiety, and shutting down socially. Then we see extreme outward behavior — like acting out in very immature ways because their development was arrested (during comprehensive distance learning)."
While parents, state leaders and school administrators lauded the return to full-time in-person learning in fall 2021, students say the abrupt transition back to school was a seismic shift.
"Before COVID it seemed like, 'oh, let's go hang out with friends,' and now it's like, social distancing kind of takes away the social part. It's more just, like, a chore," said Case Cavanaugh, a senior at Cleveland High School. "When we were in online learning, a lot of rules weren't really enforced. The grading was different. A lot of people lost motivation, I think, to be back in school. A lot of goals were lost."
Risk of self-harm
School districts are seeing more students screened for potential self-harm and suicide.
In Portland Public Schools, the district has logged 422 student suicide screenings so far this year—more than twice the number logged at this time in 2019-20, before the pandemic caused schools to close.
In Beaverton School District, the number of students who reported thoughts of self-injury or were considered at-risk went from 329 in late February 2020 to 571 by mid-February 2022.
Tigard-Tualatin School District also has seen more referrals for what it calls "care coordination" by counselors. Last year, the district logged 143 students referred for care coordination. This year, that number jumped to 213 students. Suicide screenings there also are up, from 22 students last year, to 77 students so far this year.
The screenings and interventions are part of a state-mandated student suicide prevention plan that came from Senate Bill 52, also known as Adi's Act. Adi's Act was passed by Oregon lawmakers in 2019 following the death of Adi Staub, a transgender teen who died by suicide in 2017. Prior to the adoption of Adi's Act, Oregon recorded 129 kids and young adults who took their own lives in 2018, making it the leading cause of death by youths age 10 to 24 that year.
While the increase in screening and intervention is alarming, it also could signal an improved landscape of resources and services for students.
Student mental health specialists in Portland point out that educators now are better trained on how to recognize when a student needs intervention and many schools have added social workers, counselors and school psychologists with funds from the Student Success Act. Portland Public Schools was able to hire 79 staff with the state funds, including 43 counselors, five qualified mental health providers and 30.5 full-time social workers.
Re-learn and readjust
Experts say the behavioral issues reported so far this school year largely are due to the pandemic.
Amy Ruona is the senior manager for the student success and health department at Portland Public Schools. Ruona said PPS has documented a sharp increase in the number of student suicide screenings conducted so far this year, but across the region, there's a shortage of help available to those kids in need.
"The child-serving systems, mental health systems, Department of Human Services, anybody who serves children or any of our community partners, they are all experiencing significant staffing shortages themselves, like (every industry)," Ruona said. "Children who would normally be able to lean on, or be served by some external systems, they're not necessarily in place, or they're in place but they have 12-, 14-, 16-week waitlists."
Jim Sanders is Lake Oswego School District's clinical psychologist specializing in children's behavioral and social-emotional skills. He said that the school district has seen a significant uptick in students requesting appointments with school social workers for depression and anxiety.
"With high schoolers you see heightened anxiety, depression and with younger students they have missed out on learning social cues," Sanders said.
"A dirty, but perfect, example is when you walked into the elementary school bathroom at the very beginning of the school year — you would think that a bomb had gone off with trash. Kids would go and wash their hands then throw towels in the urinals or on the ground. It wasn't like they were trying to get away with something, they simply didn't know because they haven't had to use the bathroom in public for two years."
Much of the behavioral issues are stemming from students in middle school, some of whom hadn't been in a classroom with peers full-time since elementary school.
"I think it's because of the developmental age. If we take a 13-year-old: The last time that they were full-time in school, in person, was when they were in fifth grade. And those are big developmental jumps," said Leslie Rodgers, a safety and wellness specialist with Beaverton School District.
On top of stunted social development and maturity, some child psychologists have observed changes in brain functioning.
Dr. Tere Linzey is an education psychologist based in Southern California. She runs a private program called Brain Matterz, which analyzes and improves how children learn. Linzey said she's seen a marked decline in students' overall brain function over the past two years.
"Parents are seeing so many deficits and children are having difficulty they've never had in the past," Linzey said, noting "slower visual and auditory processing speeds," and lags in working memory among kids and teens she works with.
"We're seeing five times more students than I would in a typical 'non-COVID' year," Linzey said.
Too much screen time?
Educators and child psychologists say it's important to consider the impact of increased screen time on students over the past two years. During distance learning, kids were at their computers every day. Some also were playing video games before or after digital learning. Pair that with constant access to cell phones for teens, and some say the effects are obvious.
Linzey suspects there is a thing as "too much" when it comes to television and computers.
"I think computers have their place, they're great. They're allowing us to do virtual things," Linzey said. "Do I think they're great for your brain? No, not necessarily. I think they're OK in moderation."
The good news? Linzey said retraining young brains to learn in a traditional classroom setting can be done, with thoughtful approaches.
"I think we can undo this," she said. "I think we can work hard to get kids back to where they need to be, but it's going to have to be really different from what we're doing right now. They're going to have to put in some brain-training programs, reading programs, executive functioning programs, social skills programs. Get them back into sports and exercising and put more PE back in. Physical education and exercise is so good for the brain."
In Estacada, a middle school is supporting students experiencing stress by encouraging visits to the wellness center, where they can work with a paraeducator to find strategies that work for them, like movement or deep breathing.
"The need for it has increased, but the number of students seeking it out proactively has also increased," Amelia Gundlach, a counselor at Estacada Middle School, said.
Additionally, some districts implemented a school climate reset day. In some cases, that was a staff development day, in which teachers were trained on social-emotional learning and conflict de-escalation.
In Estacada, it was the first day back after a long Presidents Day weekend, when teachers reviewed behavioral expectations with students.
"We've been focused on meeting students where they're at, and reintroducing expectations," Gundlach said.
In Central Oregon, Crook County schools have leaned more heavily on tracking the academic progress of students to intervene if they fall behind. At one elementary school, art has helped kids turn their stress into self-expression.
Janelle Deedon is an elementary art teacher at Steins Pillar Elementary School. She uses art to help students learn to work through their emotions.
"In my art room, all students are encouraged to express their feelings and emotions through their work. I believe that using the arts (music, fine arts, drama) to express oneself is a good lesson for life," Deedon said. "When it is hard to put feelings and emotions into words, we can sometimes express them through art. We have practiced this during the pandemic and will continue building this skill."
Emily Lindstrand, Mia Ryder-Marks, Ramona McCallister, Ray Pitz and Kelcie Grega contributed reporting to this story.
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