A Pandemic Tests High Schoolers’ Mental Health

East Chapel Hill High School


By Sydney Runkle

Online learning. Virtual environments. Google Classroom and Google Meet. Synchronous and asynchronous learning periods.

All these phrases have become commonplace in the households of Chapel Hill-Carrboro students and families. While dinner table talk was once about the elementary school musical, the middle school pep rally or the high school homecoming football game, such talk now revolves around Google Meet mishaps, internet connectivity issues and virtual group projects.

The vast majority of CHCCS high school students have been engaged in fully virtual learning since March 13, 2020. What started as an extended spring break has evolved into more than two semesters worth of virtual schooling, with many students in a “classroom” for just ten hours a week. Additionally, many extracurricular activities that high schoolers would ordinarily engage in have been cancelled or converted to an online environment. While some athletics have been able to continue (with safety precautions), many clubs, arts and social activities have been markedly modified. 

The changes have not come without consequence. For local high schoolers, the change has created significant mental and emotional challenges.

Have the pandemic and virtual learning environments taken a toll on student mental health? “Absolutely,” said Ryan McGraw, a counselor at Chapel Hill High. “Depression and anxiety in particular.”

There are reasons.

“Usually, school is so engaging to me that I feel very involved when I am at school and able to have conversations with my teachers and other students,” said Chapel Hill senior Isabel Sharp.

But with virtual schooling, “I don’t have any drive to do my work or to really put my heart into it. I do not feel any real connection to the majority of my teachers this year because of the impersonal nature of our classes. This has made me not very interested in what they are teaching if I don’t really have a relationship with them, which makes all of school much more boring and less effective.”

Students largely have been unable to socialize, absent the day-to-day interaction they were accustomed to getting five days a week at school. Many students, even if their teachers are taking steps towards building an inclusive and interactive learning environment, say they don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves over Google Meet. 

East Chapel Hill High senior Eleanor Steiner expressed a similar sense of detachment from learning. “This year has just made me feel unmotivated and unexcited about things I have always loved,” Steiner said. “I have never felt so apathetic about my learning in my life.” For her, “online school … is school without everything I enjoyed about school — and I have always enjoyed going to school.”

Both Steiner and Sharp voice one of the over-riding concerns of high school students during this time: how the lack of interaction in the classroom leads to an inability to form relationships and a subsequent decline in the quality of student learning and participation. Chapel Hill High English teacher Nikel Bussolati said she could understand why. 

“Students have expressed a lot of fatigue and apathy, and I understand,” she said. “The normal active stimuli have been replaced with a medium that can be very passive for students.”

Many students are also faced with balancing home and work responsibilities as well. “Some students have had increased responsibilities taking care of siblings at home so that their parents can continue to work, adding more stress to their plates,” said Ashley Freuler, the mental health specialist at Carrboro High, “While we have always seen issues such as anxiety, depression and chronic stress, the past year has shown an increase in symptoms related to all of these issues.”

School counselors across the district have noted that students are experiencing extreme academic fatigue and disengagement. “One glaring issue I have seen is the increasing apathy and disinterest,” McGraw said. “This is striking due to the normal vigor and academic energy that our school community typically embodies.”

This lack of interest expresses itself in low-energy, unenthusiastic virtual classroom environments. “Student engagement has declined significantly since the start of the pandemic, and it seems to have plateaued through the course of the year,” Bussolati said. “I have about three students in each class that I can count on to contribute regularly to discussions.”

Bussolati’s English class would normally place a heavy emphasis on whole class seminars, debate and collaboration. But “it’s very difficult to build a community or rapport with a class, so no one feels comfortable talking with each other,” she said. “I believe the lack of connection has had a negative impact on student engagement and mental health.” 

McGraw also noted that students who are already coping with mental health conditions are especially vulnerable to the drastic changes. Many of the students with pre-existing mental health issues strain to access the resources that they need, which would traditionally be available to them in the school building.

Students also have expressed physical health concerns linked to learning online. Students who in the past used laptops and phones as supplementary learning tools in school are now using these devices all day, sometimes for 8-10 hours. Students complain they have suffered from rapidly increasing rates of migraines, headaches, and even neck and back pain.

For students who may be struggling with new or magnified health challenges, school counselors and mental health specialists are offering many new support systems and coping mechanisms. These include meditation routines and mindfulness seminars, individual and group counseling sessions, and structured psychotherapy. Additionally, individual and group counseling sessions are available to help students cope with lifestyle changes, stressors and complex emotions. More tailored group counseling sessions, called SPARCS (Specialized Psychotherapy for Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress), cater to the behavioral, social and academic needs of adolescents who have experienced trauma.

School counselors say the techniques have helped many students to confront the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. McGraw noted that the mindfulness routines, especially those focusing on anxiety reduction techniques, have greatly helped some of his students to feel calmer despite stressful circumstances.

Meanwhile, some students and teachers have found a few positives in the situation.

Sharp expressed her gratitude for learning about self-exploration and independent study, reflecting: “I will be coming out of this pandemic with a newfound appreciation for times that I spend on my own, working on myself and my skill set rather than always turning to a teacher for guidance and having school be the only place I learn.”

Sharp is not alone in this discovery: many students say they have learned how to better operate and learn independently, showing impressive flexibility. Many have engaged in group activities ranging from organizing virtual Mock Trial and Science Olympiad competitions to performing virtual orchestra arrangements.

And many students have pointed out that they have had more time to spend outside, to sleep and to pursue new hobbies. Sharp expressed gratitude for the time she has found and spent on writing a book, which she claims she wouldn’t have been able to do without the pandemic. While her once overly busy schedule only allowed for dinner at 9 or 10 p.m. after she had completed her extracurriculars, Steiner now relishes her routine 6 p.m. family dinners.

The pandemic has led many high school students to reconsider a lot of things about their values, time and quality of life. The pandemic has also led many to reconsider what should be valued in the classroom.

“I think this scenario has led to more honest conversations about what’s most important and what matters most in education,” Bussolati said.

Those conversations include a number of questions, such as what keeps students engaged? How can students most effectively learn from one another and their diverse sets of experiences? In what ways can students best forge relationships with their instructors and peers in order to foster a comfortable and captivating learning environment? And how can we most effectively champion student mental health through the process of learning?

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