A New Normal

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Online school has forced teachers to rethink how they address students’ mental health.

By Lydia Brutvan, Writer

In March 2020, the Coronavirus reached the United States and changed the world as we know it.  Businesses of every kind, from banks to restaurants to clothes stores, were forced to rethink how they functioned.  Perhaps the most drastic transformation, however, happened to public schools.  

“I can no longer read body language.  I can no longer make eye contact.  Sometimes I feel like I’m jumping around like a maniac to keep [my students] engaged,” says Janine Brutvan, a special education teacher at Pine Bush Middle School.  The loss of the ability to read the room affects both teachers and students; it makes it more difficult for teachers to give students what they need, and more difficult for students to participate in class discussions.  Brutvan goes on to explain how, especially given the demographic of her students in particular, it is so important to be mindful of the wide variety of home situations a student may be facing.  

“For my kids, I applaud them for even showing up to class.  I always have to remember that their situations at home are such that they are not as available to learn,” Brutvan says.  Even when not under any extreme circumstances, it has still become generally more difficult for kids to focus from home, as they tend to lose focus and become distracted more easily.  “I have to do more verbal check ins,” Brutvan explains, “but their cameras are required to be on, so sometimes I can tell just by looking that I’m losing them.”

The camera requirement is not consistent throughout school districts, however.  “It bothers me that I can’t see most of my students most of the time,” bemoans New Paltz High School teacher Shannon Magnetico.  “How can I know what students need if I can’t even see them?”  Without the connection provided by in-person learning or even just on-screen interaction, teachers have had to adapt in other ways to still provide resources for students.  “I make an effort to really make sure students know that I’m here, and I want to help them,” she says.  “I try to give a variety of resources and try to keep students up to date and aware.”  

Unfortunately, not all teachers are as knowledgeable as Magnetico when it comes to mental health.  Her advice to other teachers?  “If you hear feedback, really try to take it to heart!  And remember that kids have so many things besides Coronavirus going on.”  She also suggests that students aid the teachers in their efforts to help students’ mental health: “After all, this is a two way conversation!”  

Thankfully, students these days are no stranger to speaking up and speaking out, when the time requires it.  New Paltz High School senior Riley Brutvan already has some suggestions for teachers on how they can help: “I find that personal interaction with teachers really helps keep you more grounded.”  Teachers do have the option to schedule office hours or after school appointments with students, but not all of them capitalize on these opportunities, which tends to increase student anxiety.  

When asked about what he is doing to help cope with stress, Riley says, “I try to do things that I like in between classes; it’s the only time I have to breathe during the day.”  Taking time for oneself, perhaps the most important part of self-care, is becoming increasingly difficult to do, as assignments stack up and passing time seems to get shorter and shorter.  To help combat the overwhelming workload, he suggests that students be allowed more independence and flexibility, especially when it comes to deadlines.  “[It] would definitely alleviate some of the stress and pressure that students are feeling right now.”  

Riley isn’t alone in his desire for increased flexibility and communication from teachers.  New Paltz High School sophomore Will D’Angelo shared a similar opinion.  “I’ve literally had teachers take 10 late points off of a paper if I turn it three minutes after the deadline,” D’Angelo  sighs.  “Things are stressful enough already- you’d think they could lay off even a little.”  

One would hope, but it appears that things are unlikely to change unless students start a conversation with their teachers.  Students are indeed under all kinds of new pressures, but they aren’t the only ones attempting to adjust to the newly virtual world of learning.  

As the world continues to adapt and change in flux with the rampaging Coronavirus, school will undoubtedly continue to do so as well.  Both teachers and students have a part to play when it comes to aiding one another with the emotional duress that virtual schooling presents.  These seemingly endless changes continue to propel the world up and down on the roller coaster of Coronavirus, but one thing remains clear.  As Ms. Magnetico so concisely puts it: “All we can do is go with the flow.”  

Featured Photo: nazarkru, Getty Images/iStockphoto