Zoom School Is Hurting Kids’ Mental Health

A high school student explains why, and how to make it better

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

When the pandemic hit and remote learning began in March, I first thought it was an extended Spring Break — a nice vacation away from high school for a few weeks, maybe even two months at the very most. I thought I could destress, the workload would be light, and I could hang out with friends in between classes.

Obviously, I was wrong. Eight months later, I’m still spending at least six hours of remote learning per day on Zoom. And sometimes I laugh when I remember that in before times, my teachers used to recommend no more than two hours of screen time per day.

Remote learning often feels paradoxical. It seems as though I have more time to myself, but that’s not really the case. Yes, the daily three-hour commute from Queens, New York to my high school in Manhattan is gone, but since my productivity levels have nosedived, I need that extra time to deal with the hours of homework my teachers feel more than willing to put on me despite the world falling apart.

“Because of the switch to remote learning, it’s a whole new problem set with how to identify mental health issues with children, adolescents, and college students.”

20% of high school students say the pandemic has worsened their mental health

On Zoom, so many little moments that made my days better are gone. The jokes while passing through my school’s hallways, the side eyes and the stifled laughs during class are what helped to make an ordinary school day bearable. At home I sit around my desk for hours, hunched over a computer screen, and despite being able to FaceTime friends daily, I feel lonely.

As remote learning drones on, life feels more and more uncertain. When will I go back to school in person? What happens if I get Covid-19? What if I give it to my parents? What if my parents pass it to me? The fact that my mother, 55 years old and African American, is a frontline worker, adds to this troubling feeling of uncertainty. She is the office manager at a pediatricians’ office in Manhattan and her job means face-to-face contact with dozens of sick patients per day. The feeling that she could contract and possibly die from Covid-19 makes my heart drop every morning when she leaves for work.

Despite all the stress and uncertainty in my life, my personal situation isn’t that bad compared to so many other students across the nation who have to deal with things like food insecurity, or having to take care of their siblings while their parents go to work, making remote learning feel even more difficult.

Experts are seeing a decline in students’ mental well-being: According to a September 2020 report from Active Minds, a nonprofit that promotes mental health awareness, 20% of high school students said the pandemic has worsened their mental health significantly. High percentages of respondents said that they have experienced stress or anxiety, disappointment or sadness, or felt lonely or isolated during the pandemic.

During remote learning, mental health issues fall under the radar

Remote learning during the pandemic can not only lead to or exacerbate mental health problems, but also complicate diagnosis. “Because of the switch to remote learning, it’s a whole new problem set with how to identify mental health issues with children, adolescents, and college students,” says Gabrielle Shapiro, MD, Chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Council on Children, Adolescents, and Their Families.

One way schools can actively help improve students’ mental health is by setting aside time for them to talk about their feelings with other students and teachers during daily Zoom check-ins.

Mental health struggles in students can be more easily identified in person by the teacher or other students through changes in mannerisms, body language, and how someone interacts with their peers. Before the pandemic, APA created an educational program intended for educators and parents to be more sensitive to signs indicating that a child or teenager may have mental health issues. But now, red flags — such as a kid being isolated from others in a classroom environment — often go unseen because everyone is isolated in front of their screens.

How can schools improve their students’ mental health?

One way schools can actively help improve students’ mental health is by setting aside time for them to talk about their feelings with other students and teachers during daily Zoom check-ins. This could include asking the students to put their feelings on a rating scale in order to assess how they are feeling that day.

At one high school in Hammond, Indiana, student mental health during the pandemic is a top priority. Questionnaires assessing the students’ mental health are sent out via email or dropped in the Zoom chat every morning, says Scott Middle School’s lead counselor, Lydia McNeiley. Depending on the responses, the school will either make a follow-up video chat appointment with the student or, in more serious cases, contact the student’s parents and a local psychologist.

APA’s Shapiro welcomes that approach. “Schools need to interface with local community resources,” she says. She recommends that schools create protocols for how to access mental health support within the school community such as counseling and also make professional telehealth resources more accessible, such as a helpline run by a trained adult or peers within a school who could help when students seek support.

Remote learning may have a negative impact on student mental health, but through coordination with local community resources and allowing students to talk more openly about what they are going through and how they are feeling, mental health during remote learning can be improved.

Freelance journalist in The New York Times, Business Insider, GEN, Elemental, and more. 📧: rainierharris3@gmail.com

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