It’s getting late down by the Oakland, California, harbor. The winter afternoon sun blares through the west windows of the Downtown Charter Academy (DCA); the rays force teachers to angle their grade-level team meetings toward the shadows. Three P.E. educators huddle in a classic training stance for the last hour of a daylong professional development: elbows on knees, shoulders curled, heads cocked up at whoever’s speaking.
“It’s, like, totally flipped from before,” says Coach Gregg Pentony. “Used to be that most of the sixth graders would come in able to run the mile, and you’d usually be able to tell ahead of time which ones were going to struggle. Now? Now it’s the opposite: Most kids can’t make it, even the ones who look like they should be able to.”
His colleagues nod along and commiserate. The pandemic’s homebound isolation did a number on kids’ fitness, they agree. In this, their students are typical—data suggest that the pandemic cost kids exercise all over the world.
But children weren’t just physically languishing on their couches. Social life also stalled for much of 2020 and even into 2021, depriving kids of regular practice living, growing, and learning among their peers. Teachers are still seeing the impacts today. “I think they’re still resocializing,” says sixth-grade DCA teacher Kimberly Chang. “The way people interact in an online space is how students now interact in real-life space—no filter. And that was already hard for middle schoolers before the pandemic: that act of stopping, taking a moment to form your words and think through the consequences of each choice.”
Almost three years since the pandemic started and roughly 16 months since U.S. schools were universally reopened for in-person learning, the country has largely settled into its postpandemic “normal.” Covid-19 mitigation measures have largely vanished, and the federal government has declared that the pandemic is no longer an emergency.
But it’s increasingly clear that these decisions didn’t suddenly end the pandemic’s impacts on kids. While there’s ample—and largely warranted—public concern about learning loss, this narrow framing underestimates the breadth and depth of the pandemic’s effect on children’s well-being.
A real recovery will require not just intensive academic interventions, but also intentional efforts to rebuild students’ social skills and their sense of belonging in their school communities. That remains the central paradox facing teachers today: Despite all the attention being paid to “lost” learning, schools won’t actually be able to get kids back on track academically without doing more to address the pandemic’s deeper social and emotional impacts.
Lingering Signs of Dysfunction
For at least the past two years, public education discourse has focused on getting students caught up to “normal” academic expectations for their grade levels. Each new round of the Nation’s Report Card brings fresh hand-wringing over the ways that Covid-19 derailed academic trajectories.
But on a recent reporting tour of schools in Northern California, teachers told me that academic recovery is stalling as it encounters the consequences of prolonged social isolation and disrupted learning time.
Early data on children’s mental well-being during (and even before) the pandemic should have been a warning sign. By May 2021, for example, 71 percent of families said the pandemic was negatively affecting their children’s mental health, and social isolation topped families’ list of unhealthy aspects of the pandemic—ahead of remote learning, excessive screen time, and even fear of the virus itself. It was inevitable that kids brought these struggles—and rusty social skills—back to campus as schools reopened.
On cue, student misbehavior spiked in 2021, EducationWeek’s Research Center reported, and has not improved through the early months of 2023, when the researchers last checked in with schools. Children’s marination in technology is an inescapable part of this story: The pandemic reignited a national debate about children’s access to and reliance on screens, with new studies suggesting possible links between smartphone usage, social media, and youth mental health challenges. A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that nonacademic adolescent screen time roughly doubled during the early pandemic, to an astonishing 7.7 hours per day. The researchers concluded that “despite the gradual reversal of quarantine restrictions, studies have suggested that screen use may remain persistently elevated.” In response to widespread concern from teachers, schools and districts are wrestling with ways of restricting student cell phone and technology use on campus.
Accordingly, DCA’s eighth-grade team spends part of their professional development day huddling over how to manage in-school technology. They commiserate over the difficulty of keeping kids on task and off the internet during lessons and then share tips for limiting distractions. One teacher says he’s resorted to giving students free time on their school-assigned computers at the end of a lesson and then using the school’s classroom dashboard app to block inappropriate websites they visit. Another teacher periodically projects students’ dashboard screens onto the whiteboard so that their online activity is visible to the class.
Technology is only one variable making it harder for many kids to reacclimate to ordinary classroom activities like small group work and class discussion. Two days after DCA’s professional development, a seventh-grade science class at the school is eerily quiet. Students complete a short assignment on geological time scales, and the teacher begins to work through the questions on their sheets. “OK,” he announces cheerfully. “What landforms occur at different locations on Earth?”
No one volunteers a response. When the teacher calls on a student, she murmurs something that’s too quiet to hear, then shrugs and smooshes up her cheeks with her hands. He tries another student, then suggests that kids discuss their answers with classmates in their table groups. Despite the low-stress, open-ended format, the discussions flounder. “I know we just switched groups,” he pleads, “but you still know the people at your table. Don’t be afraid to talk.”
Strategies for Reengaging and Reconnecting
Educators around the country are experiencing similar classroom dynamics and are scrambling to reengage with students.
“Kids need more than ever to feel safe in a school space, they need to feel engaged in that space, they need to feel like the behaviors of that space support their mental health and well-being,” says Houston Kraft, the cofounder of CharacterStrong, a social and emotional learning curriculum. “It needs to feel like we are collectively honoring what happened and not just trying to go back to business as usual, because collectively, young people are like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
How can schools design “whole child” approaches to meet the full range of children’s needs at this particular, charged moment? Experiences from two Bay Area campuses, San Jose’s Edenvale Elementary and Oakland International High School, offer useful lessons for educators seeking to reengage students and support their social and emotional development.
Defining the scope of the problem: Though the student well-being crisis is shaping teachers’ daily work around the country, the particulars of students’ social and emotional needs may vary by community, campus, classroom, and individual. Schools will be more effective if they have a clear understanding of their students’ specific challenges.
Upon seeing increased rates of chronic absenteeism after the pandemic, Edenvale, a K–6 school in San Jose, California, designed and administered surveys to identify students’ views of their own well-being. What they found was jarring: In the 2021–22 school year, only 53 percent of elementary students reported that they could connect with an adult on campus, and the number dropped to 42 percent for middle schoolers. A report issued in 2015 by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child suggests that a stable relationship with even one caring adult in school, meanwhile, increases student resilience and improves coping strategies.
Focusing on belonging: Staff members at Edenvale combed through their survey data to identify children who said they felt disconnected from the school. In a professional development session, they sifted through the list and assigned themselves to students, ensuring that each child had at least one adult dedicated to regularly checking in and forging a deeper relationship (you can see a similar strategy in practice at Cold Springs Middle School in Nevada, in the video below). Since research shows that students learn best when they are part of a community of trusting relationships, the school prioritized trust building in these connections.
Similarly, when the pandemic forced it to close, Oakland International High School, which serves newly arrived immigrants in Oakland, assigned educators call lists to (1) check on students’ overall well-being and (2) provide students with targeted practice in conversational English phrases to help them navigate new pandemic pressures. After reopening, these “case management” check-ins have continued: Educators and noninstructional staff alike commit to regular chats to ask how students are feeling, identify broader challenges they and their families may be facing, and help connect them with community resources to improve learning outcomes.
Funding real change: Fully addressing students’ current needs requires more than just identifying challenges and setting new priorities. In many cases, the scope of the problem will require a shift in budgetary allocations or staffing. Edenvale, for example, committed some of its federal ESSER pandemic recovery funds to adding counseling capacity and opening a wellness center where students can go to reset themselves socially and emotionally when things get tough.
Oakland International found a local grant to enhance the school’s after-school programming with the aim of reengaging students and improving their attendance. The school partnered with a local nonprofit, Soccer Without Borders (SWB). The goal was to entice students to attend school so that they didn’t miss their biweekly after-school soccer practices, but SWB also incorporates case management practices, checking in with students and connecting them with community services when needed. Perhaps most important, says SWB founder Ben Gucciardi, the work of building a soccer team helps “students from different backgrounds and different cultures… work together concretely.” In other words, the team helps students find their place on campus—to find a sense of belonging.
Reworking school spaces for a new era: In response to the stresses of the pandemic, Edenvale created unique, supervised spaces to build students’ sense of belonging on campus—beginning with the Wellness Center. After seeing that some students were struggling to reacclimate to the noise and intensity of recess, first-grade teacher Kerry Sommer began opening up her classroom for quiet group play or reading time.
To help students navigate the social tensions and mental health challenges that accompanied returning to in-person learning, Oakland International launched student affinity groups, usually organized around students’ ethnicities or home languages. They developed in response to the school’s desire to “create space for students to share what’s coming up [with] an adult who reflects their community and can support it,” says administrator Madenh Hassan. They give students a chance to process challenges—social, emotional, academic, and otherwise—with peers as part of rebuilding their sense of belonging on campus.