Students, teachers struggle mentally in new COVID world

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Benjamin Zayas
Artwork by Benjamin Zayas

Content warning: The story contains descriptions of self harm/suicidal thoughts.

It would have been easy to stop them.


The thoughts raced through her mind.

She could have taken a bottle of her mother’s pills. She could have cut her wrists.

That would have ended the agony she felt just weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic shut her school down and she found herself alone.

“I really didn’t know what was happening and I tried to deny anything was happening,” said Bailey Stone, who is an eighth grader at Bearden Middle School. “It really impacted me. It put me in a dark place.”

Courtesy of Bailey Stone
Bailey, an eighth grader at Bearden Middle School, began feeling anxiety as the COVID pandemic first hit in March.

Bailey ultimately chose not to take her own life, but she is just one of tens of thousands of children enrolled in Knox County schools, and what happened to her is happening all too frequently to others as the pandemic continues.

The 13-year-old girl who found herself isolated to the point of harming herself is anything but alone. Students, teachers and parents alike have found themselves trying to adjust to a “new normal” that’s like nothing they’ve ever experienced.

They’ve all found themselves battling a host of mental health issues, most of it revolving around anxiety.

“It’s a variety of issues we see in kids,” said Lindsay Stone, director of children and youth mental health programming for the McNabb Center (and no relation to Bailey Stone). “It’s definitely high on the anxiety.”

DEALING WITH THE NEW NORMAL

Public education systems across the state started canceling classes at the end of March when Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued a “Safer at Home” order and asked that all K-12 schools close their doors in order to curb the growth of the novel coronavirus.

A closure that at first would last a matter of weeks turned into months until, finally, students found themselves in August with the choice of going back to school in a physical classroom or attending online classes.

Stone said therapists in the schools are taking a proactive approach to addressing mental health issues.

“We have to keep a pulse on how they are emotionally feeling, as well,” she said.

Since 2018, the McNabb Center has had an agreement to provide 23 counselors to the school system at an annual cost of $23,000 per contracted employee. Each counselor holds a master’s degree and, as a group, they are tasked with covering all 35 of the system’s middle and high schools.

Teachers and staff at the school system also underwent trauma training over a two year period before the pandemic struck, which means counselors aren’t the only trained eyes and ears monitoring students.

Illustration by Benjamin Zayas

The key right now is flexibility and being able to pay attention to the needs of students — especially since some aren’t even in the classroom and can’t be closely observed for signs of trouble, according to Stone.

“I think in the mental health field we’ve learned to turn on a dime,” she said.

TEACHERS ARE ROCK STARS

Janice Cook, director of school culture for Knox County, agrees that many students are battling anxiety issues.

She said the school system began preparing for this scenario as soon as classes were first canceled months ago. The school system immediately made videos related to trauma for teachers and staff to watch so they could catch the signs of anxiety and depression.

She said that school officials knew students would be affected.

“They weren’t going to be the same when they came back,” she said.

Teachers are taught to look for signs such as students withdrawing or a sudden shift or change in personality. She said she believes the largest group of students dealing with anxiety and depression right now are those taking classes virtually.

“They are really struggling with that,” Cook said.

There are almost 19,000 Knox County students conducting virtual learning right now with more than 58,000 students in the classroom.

TEACHERS HAVE HAD TO PIVOT THEIR WHOLE WORLD

Janice Cook – director of school culture for Knox County Schools

Even with more than 6,300 students switching from virtual to in-person classrooms in the spring, more than 13,000 students will still be spending their days at home away from friends and teachers.

Cook also stressed another point: It’s just not students, it’s also their teachers who are dealing with the mental and emotional trauma caused by the pandemic.

“Teachers have had to pivot their whole world,” she said.

Teachers are expected to cover both virtual students and those who are physically attending classes. They must rigorously adhere to the protocols of social distancing and wear face masks and personal protective equipment through the day.

They have been forced to effectively create a brand new way to teach within a matter of months, not the years that are normally required to develop a new curriculum. 

Some of them are learning how to use online teaching technology for the first time while dealing with related issues such as tracking down whether missing students are actually enrolled in home classes. 

On top of all those challenges may be personal issues such as a spouse or partner losing a job, Cook added.

Yet through all of this chaos, Knox County teachers have continued to do their jobs effectively, she said.

“Our teachers have been rock stars,” Cook said. “They’ve stepped up to the plate.”

THE TOLL

One day each week Sarah Hamilton, a school counselor at Pond Gap Elementary School, comes home following an after-hours yoga session at the school with her co-workers.

Yoga, she explained, is one of the ways that she and other staff members are dealing with stress.

At the start of the academic year, she started a voluntary support group for teachers and staff and yoga was one of the suggestions. Blue Ridge Yoga on Campbell Station Road then offered its services to the group, free of charge.

Such activities are sorely needed right now.

YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH HOURS IN THE DAY TO SERVE ALL THE STUDENTS.

– Sarah Hamilton, school counselor at Pond Gap Elementary School

Teachers — arguably the most important employees in any school system — are struggling psychologically as never before, she said.

“I’ve been a counselor since 2003 and I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said.

According to Hamilton, the school still lacks manpower when it comes to dealing with students’ troubles. While there are therapists available for each  middle and high school, mental health specialists at the elementary level are a mixture of school counselors, social workers who may be responsible for covering up to six different schools apiece, and teachers who have received at least some amount of training in trauma. 

But, Hamilton said, the training is not nearly enough.

“You don’t have enough hours in the day to serve all the students,” she said.

At Pond Gap, Hamilton said the staff meets almost weekly to go over behavioral issues, discuss specifics on what can be done and let each other know if they’ve seen any students who may be struggling.

Pond Gap employees have developed this system on their own because there’s no centralized plan from the administration for dealing with mental health, she said.

“Every school is different,” she said. “Not every school gives that much focus.”

The toll is taxing on parents, as well.

Melissa Cox, a parent of three school children, said she’s seen first hand how it has impacted her daughter, who goes to Hardin Valley Middle School.

Her daughter has dealt with with anxiety since the pandemic began and she said sometimes it seems that the children are being bounced around from school work to home life.

“I’m an adult, and I’m struggling,” Cox said.

Dealing with the effects of COVID is a day-to-day struggle, she said.

“I’m not concerned about COVID,” she said. “I’m more concerned about my child’s mental health.”

“THE DARK PLACE”

Bailey Stone loves to play volleyball and is in the National Junior Honor Society. Early this year she was bubbly and outgoing and acted like any other 13-year-old girl.

Then the pandemic hit.

It first started affecting her psychologically just weeks after the schools closed in March. For the first time in her life she had time on her hands — time she didn’t know what to do with.

“I became severely depressed and got severe anxiety,” she said.

She tried to be strong, like teens often do. 

She told no one, as teens often do.

Bailey tried to deal with it by herself, but she “just couldn’t do it.”

It led to her thinking about taking her own life.

“I had a lot of suicidal thoughts at the time,” she said.

She finally opened up to her parents, started therapy and was prescribed medication for her anxiety and depression. 

She said the treatment helped but was no magic bullet.

“It’s not like it completely healed me,” she said.

Courtesy of Bailey Stone
Bailey with her volleyball team.

She is now back at Bearden Middle School and playing volleyball again, which she said has helped her mental health.

Being able to get back to her passion of playing volleyball, in fact, has given her hope. She said she plans to write about her experience and also produce a video about her battle with mental health in order to share her story with other students.

Her hope is that it could affect someone else and let them know not to give up.

She said that she’s getting a little better each day.

“I’m definitely beyond the suicidal thoughts and the dark place,” she said. “But I’m not completely better.”

Bailey said she doesn’t like to think about what it must be like for those students who are doing virtual classes right now. She can’t even imagine what might have happened if she had chosen virtual learning instead of coming back to the classroom.

“I don’t know if I would have ever gotten better,” Bailey said. “I don’t know if I would be here today.”


For those needing help or believe a loved one needs help contact the McNabb Center at  1-800-255-9711.