Social Studies: Considering the Effects of Zoom School Isolation on Kids’ Mental Health

Much has been discussed about whether this setup allows our children to grasp all that they need academically, but what about their social and emotional learning? One Detroit family opens up about how they’re trying to stay afloat in a sea of strange.

Zoom School
Illustration by Justine Allenette Ross

When I’d get in trouble in school for talking, my mother would say, “You don’t go to school to socialize; you go to learn!” I understand why she said that then. I shouldn’t have been discussing Pokémon during math. But, like with most things, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended that dynamic and shown us what happens when balanced interaction and socialization in schools gets taken away.

Kids of all ages and grades went from rubbing shoulders with friends and trading lunches down the hallways to staring at faces through a screen every day – all day. Academics and eye strain aside, there’s worrying evidence mounting that enduring this sudden, topsy-turvy new reality of isolation is affecting students’ abilities to engage with their peers and manage social wellbeing.  

A Hard 180

On March 13, 2020, the Detroit Public Schools Community District closed all in-person learning for the first time. Schools provided supplemental and technological support to staff and students after the initial three-week closure was extended to multiple months, building a new system of instruction with speed and innovation, driven mostly by desperation and the need to keep kids learning despite the new public health risk. 

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Prior to digital learning, social media was full of memes and jokes about how much kids hated having to attend physical school and interact with the assorted foolishness of their classmates. Slow walkers, annoying outbursts, fights, conflicts with teachers. All of this and more can make the American schooling experience irritating.

Now, some kids who claimed to despise all aspects of school, might opt to return if given the chance to escape their tech-locked, secluded reality. At least in the Upside Down, Will Byers’ friends could see him in person. “I thought it would only be for a little while. My friends and I, we all thought this would be over soon – and then it just kept going,” says Nigel Baker, a 10th grader at University Prep Science & Math High School in Detroit.

Parents like Nigel’s mother, Cre Baker, were forced to make hard and fast decisions about their households and their kids’ academic careers, with little warning and even less information. “It was a drastic change. It was mentally challenging as a parent. At the top of the pandemic, we had no answers or real scale for how hard this was going to be. There was a new update or decision made every day,” she says, adding that she noticed an almost “immediate change” in her kids’ attitudes and behavior, separate from how they performed in the virtual classroom.

“I stay on my kids about grades, so that hasn’t been allowed to be an issue, but I absolutely noticed how their behavior changed. For a lot of kids, this happened right at the peak of being a teen, and everything was stopped. Going to school, catching the bus, driving, going to the show – all of that was snatched. They’re still adjusting to this day.”

Cre says her boys seemed more lethargic and pessimistic about school and the day-to-day. “They didn’t talk to each other, and it was hard to get them out of their rooms. I found myself looking for ways to cheer them up, but we can’t do anything. So, I was buying things to make up for it, which felt pointless because they couldn’t go anywhere or show anyone,” she says.

I once overheard a conference call between my mother, other parents and the administration at Cass Tech, my sister’s high school. One parent expressed irritation at the district for failing to consider socialization in their COVID plans. Cre says she doesn’t think that’s how the majority of parents feel – but it is a general and increasingly pressing concern.

“It’s not the district’s fault, and most of us know that. It’s just not safe for the kids to be around each other, period. It’s still an awful feeling when you know your kid is sad and needs to feel connected, but who would want to send their kid inside when numbers are that bad just for them to have a good time?” 

The Kids Aren’t All Right

There’s a reason that basic fundamentals of society like sharing, conflict management and communication are taught in the earliest grades. Those annoyances you have to deal with in school were crucial to building cornerstone interpersonal skills you need to function in everyday life.

According to the Economic Policy Institute – a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank that works to include the needs of low- and middle-class workers in policy decisions – “For children, going to school is not just about learning reading and math: it’s also about developing the social and emotional skills critical to succeeding in life.”

It continues: “School closures eliminated some of these critically important aspects of school such as the development that occurs through personal relationships among students and between students and teachers, after-school activities that support children’s mental and emotional well-being and skills development, and a sense of routine.” 

Nigel says that the situation with online schooling is “complicated” since he usually prefers learning on his own time and terms, anyway. “I like certain parts more than regular school. I have more independence and more time to connect with teachers from home. If you need help it’s slightly easier to get in contact with them, but I wouldn’t want it to stay like this forever. I’ve been falling asleep in bed and stuff. I know a lot of kids struggle learning at home, and some teachers are busier. We also feel like we’ve been given a lot more work this year,” he says. 

Academically, Nigel feels set. Emotionally and mentally is a very different story. He’s had friends affected by something he can’t see, and he says he doesn’t fully recognize the world he’s living in right now. “I know friends that had the virus. I know a teacher that had the virus, but, thankfully, she recovered. In the first few months I was really scared, and I didn’t want to go outside for anything. I went outside after a long time, and it felt like a video game. There were no cars or people walking. Everyone had to stay away from people in ways we didn’t think about. It was weird.”

He and his mother agree that the worst part of the pandemic for them was the removal of nearly all ability to practice their interests and share them with others. “I play sports,” Nigel says. “Soccer is my sport, but I obviously can’t do that right now. I can’t find a team; I haven’t played in two years. Recreation centers aren’t open. The most we can do is ride our bikes, but we had to buy it first, and now it’s cold so we can’t do that either. I had some anxiety attacks over it. I miss it so much. It’s really hard for me to be away from my team.”

On the flip side, his older brother, Nikolas Baker, is a 17-year-old senior at Cass Tech whose main interest is game design, and so he spends most of his free time after school on the computer. For him, the part he misses most is hanging out with friends and being able to develop relationships with his teachers. “I’m so bored, and it feels wrong to log off school, get out of class and do nothing and talk to nobody,” Nikolas says.

“I miss seeing my homies, acting a fool and having physical contact. Typing is annoying; I hate it. It makes me miss holding pencils. You’re engaged when it’s not digital. I miss having to hold things. I miss the Cass Tech stairs – that’s how bad it is!” 

Like a lot of kids, Nikolas says he feels like he’s lost a lot of time to increased workload and the weird schedules kids have had to adopt for homework and independent study. “I hoped it wouldn’t last this long. I was looking around at my homies like, huh? We’re in summer already? Dang. I try to talk to my friends, but life outside of school is crazier for a lot of us so we aren’t online in our free time,” he says.

And even though game design is a digital format, the social interaction around it is now also gone. “I was the president of the gaming design club before the pandemic. It feels like it died. I can tell my friends are bored and depressed when we do talk, and there’s no heart or interest in it anymore,” Nikolas says. 

Future of the Youth

For kids, parents and educators alike, the end to these stressful times may finally be in sight. Chrystal Wilson, assistant superintendent of communications and marketing for DPSCD, says there’s a potential reopening plan in the works that would prioritize the safety and wellbeing of students and staff.

“In the next few weeks to a month, we hope to roll out the reopening of our Learning Centers that provide an alternative to in-home learning for Detroit students,” she says when we speak in mid-February. “We tried this out in November and had an incident, but the district has been monitoring the infection and risk rate in the city, and we feel confident in a slow, cautious reopening,” Wilson says. 

According to DPSCD, Learning Centers will be open for those who need it or feel they learn and work best in person. Students can eat breakfast and lunch while engaging with teachers and staff for support with their online learning during regular class hours, just like a “normal” day at school.

“We feel confident in doing this because the infection rate for Detroit has held consistently at 5% or below. Employees will be required to (be tested) for COVID before returning and multiple safeguards are being put into place so that our staff and students are treated fairly and safely,” Wilson says. “The district understands, more than anything, the need to be careful. None of this is mandatory at any level. It’s just an option we’re glad to be in a position to offer families.”

In the meantime, kids like Nikolas and Nigel have found ways to stave off the boredom and develop new interests in the best way they know how – through screens and the internet. “As bad as social media can be, it’s really helping us right now. Me and my brother are learning how to cook really good from TikTok and stuff, and it’s where I do most of my talking to my friends,” Nigel says. “We work out, we try to stay moving, and the few times we’ve seen friends, we do it distantly and carefully.” 

Keep Your Kids Socially Sane (and Safe) 

Quick and easy tips to combat isolation and boredom

Get creative and active around the house

Movie nights in the garage with a projector and some popcorn can turn just another night into an uplifting tradition. Ride bikes, start household projects and take on learning new skills together. Weekly Mario Kart tournament, anyone?

Set up digital play dates and virtual visits 

If you have younger kids, some form of interaction with family and friends is better than nothing. Integrate Zoom visits with relatives with fun interactive activities. For example, turn the living room into an art gallery and invite grandma to a virtual tour. 

Introduce online therapy and safe spaces 

Students can benefit from therapy and mental relaxation just as much, if not more, than adults. Introduce them to therapy apps like Headspace or Talkspace, or even just sit and have an honest conversation with them. 

Look for safe ways to serve the community

Pandemic-mindful activities like community service and election canvassing are slowly opening back up. If you’re comfortable, encourage your kids to mask up, get out there and see what they can do to safely uplift their neighborhoods in this crisis.

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