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As The Coronavirus Disrupts Another School Year, Kansas City Parents Worry About Their Kids' Mental Health

Children in most Kansas City area schools will be required to wear face masks this fall to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Wikimedia Commons
Children in most Kansas City area schools will be required to wear face masks this fall to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

As school districts face tough decisions on whether to reopen this fall, some parents face a dilemma – keep their kids from being exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom, or protect their mental health.

During lockdown this spring, Melissa Duffett got a phone call that no parent wants to get: her 14-year-old son was on his way to the emergency room.

“He was at his dad’s, and it was Friday night, and he had threatened suicide via Snapchat,” Duffett said. “One of his friends had gotten very concerned and told her mom, and they called the police.”

Duffett’s son had been out of school for about five weeks at that point (KCUR is not naming him to protect his privacy). She knew he missed his friends, but she and his father didn’t realize how much their son was struggling.

“I’ve been teaching middle school for 23 years, so I’ve learned how to speak teenager fluently,” Duffett said. “But we did not know. It came out of the blue. He told us once it all came out he just had been feeling not great for about a year.”

Duffett’s son is seeing a counselor now. He’s more willing than he was to talk to his parents about his feelings. He’s playing sports again, and Duffett says he’s less withdrawn than he was.

For the coming school year, Duffett let her son and 16-year-old daughter enroll themselves in the school option they thought was best. They both picked in-person learning, though in Liberty School District, that’s only two days a week to allow for social distancing in classrooms.

“I don’t love the idea of leaving them at home for three days by themselves while I’m at work,” said Duffett, who expects to teach five days a week in North Kansas City. “But I felt like I had no other choice at this point for his mental wellbeing than to send him.”

Decision fatigue

A lot of kids are experiencing anxiety and depression stemming from social isolation right now. It’s one of the reasons why pediatricians have recommended that students return to school this fall with precautions.

Reopening schools won’t be easy. As pandemic conditions worsen in Kansas City, many districts are scrapping their plans for in-person learning, preparing instead to start the school year online.

Meanwhile, parents like Peggy Amor of Overland Park are experiencing pandemic school decision fatigue.

“How many times have we made the decision over the last – I don’t know, five months?” said Amor, whose daughters are 7 and 4. “Spring break never ended, then the things we had put together for the summer weren’t available anymore. At that point, we’d already been working from home for weeks and weeks, so we decided to keep doing that through the summer.”

But Amor knew her younger daughter, Molly, was really struggling. Molly’s behavior had regressed when her preschool closed. She lost a lot of the independence she had gained, and it was difficult for Amor to keep Molly occupied while helping Maggie, then in first grade, with her schoolwork.

So Amor’s family will try something different starting this week: Molly is headed back to preschool, but when the school year starts next month for Shawnee Mission students, Molly will learn online.

“I was so worried when we told the girls what the school year was going to be like,” Amor said. “I thought for sure Molly was going to be so mad that Maggie got to stay home. And I thought for sure that Maggie was going to be so mad that Molly got to go to school. They were both totally chill.”

Emotional strain

Amor and her husband feel comfortable sending Molly back to her small preschool because they know teachers had a say in the reopening plan. They feel comfortable keeping Maggie at home because her teacher provided so many resources during distance learning in the spring.

Teachers are stressed, though. Nearly three-fourths of them consider their jobs risky in terms of potential COVID-19 exposure, according to the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, and 78% of the educators NPR surveyed last month are specifically worried they won’t get adequate personal protective equipment or cleaning supplies this fall.

N-95 respirator masks continue to be in short supply. Teachers are worried that they won't be protected in non-medical masks while interacting with students all day.
Wikimedia Commons
Bloomberg via Getty Images
N-95 respirator masks continue to be in short supply. Teachers are worried that they won't be protected in non-medical masks while interacting with students all day.

And just like their students, teachers have also experienced anxiety, depression, isolation and grief because of the pandemic.

“Grief is something we don’t always think about,” said Moyenda Anwisye, a counselor for the Parkway School District in the St. Louis area. “It’s not only the experience of losing a loved one to death. Losing our way of life, some of the things we used to do, can cause significant distress.”

Earlier this month, Anwisye participated in a webinar with Missouri education officials about supporting the social and emotional needs of teachers and school staff in uncertain times.

Anwisye said it is more important than ever to practice self-care.

“Pre-coronavirus, our daily activities of work, school, caring for our families were often prioritized over unpacking the stress we accumulated in our emotional backpack. People have been forced now to slow down and quarantine,” Anwisye said.

“As educators, teachers, counselors and administrators, we’ve been drafted into balancing all of our very demanding roles.”

Essential workers

When schools do reopen, teachers will be front-line workers in a public health crisis.

Jessica Brooks knows what that’s like. A neurology nurse practitioner, she was exposed to COVID-19 at work early in the pandemic.

“I had to quarantine for two weeks,” said Brooks, who is Amor’s stepsister. Brooks lives in Olathe with her husband and 5-year-old daughter in Olathe and also had two school-age foster children in the spring. “They had to quarantine with me. It was pretty tough on everyone. All of the kids wanted attention, even more so than before.”

Unable to take her kids to the park, to visit grandma or to play with cousins, Brooks said her house started to feel like a pressure cooker.

“All of our big feelings got even bigger,” Brooks said.

Brooks’ family stayed healthy, but life didn’t go back to normal after 14 symptom-free days. Their foster kids moved on to a permanent placement, but when Brooks and her husband tried to take their biological daughter out of play therapy, she reacted badly.

“We told her, ‘We don’t think you need to go to therapy quite as much,’ and she bawled,” Brooks said. “She totally lost her mind. She’s 5, and she already knows she needs that outlet.”

Even Brooks’ husband, usually a happy-go-lucky guy, has been depressed. The entire family continues to be cautious because Brooks works with dementia patients at higher risk of severe illness. For him, that means no league sports or pickup games for friends.

For their daughter, it means no in-person kindergarten. She’ll start school virtually next month.

Different circumstances

Most families in the Kansas City area aren’t choosing online learning, though, and some are doubling down on the decision to send their kids back.

In a week, more than 2,500 people joined a Facebook group to reopen Jackson County schools against health department advice. There’s post after post from parents desperate for normalcy. They’re mourning for lost sports seasons and canceled milestones, and they want their children back in school five days a week even though public health officials have said it’s too risky right now.

Gail Robertson, a clinical psychologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital, said families are making decisions based on calculations that might not make sense to someone else.

“I think some families are feeling a lot of shame with the decisions that they're making, and we all need to understand that this is a completely new world for most of us,” Robertson said.

A Kansas City Public Schools food service employee prepares meals to pass out to students on March 19, 2020, before the citywide mask mandate. Nationally, school meal distribution is only reaching about 20% of families whose kids would normally receive free breakfast and lunch at school.
Ray Weikal
Kansas City Public Schools
A Kansas City Public Schools food service employee prepares meals to pass out to students back in March, before the citywide mask mandate. Nationally, school meal distribution only reached about 20% of families whose kids would normally eat for free at school.

Lateshia Woodley, the executive director of student support services for Kansas City Public Schools, said parents should know that educators also want to be in-person with students this fall.

“When you are in a distance situation, you are not able to look into the eyes of a child and see their needs and see something they may not be able to say to you,” Woodley said.

She said while KCPS is now providing telehealth, she worries about the kids whose teachers won’t spot abuse, neglect or hunger over a screen.

Still, Woodley supports the district’s decision to start the school year virtually, in part because she knows how devastating COVID-19 can be, having lost a loved one to the disease. Woodley is also worried about KCPS students, 90% of whom are children of color, because Black and Latino kids are eight times more likely than their white peers to experience severe coronavirus symptoms.

“It breaks my heart to see people at resorts, not practicing social distancing, still having huge parties,” Woodley said. “If we continue to act as though COVID does not exist, we’re going to continue to have these conversations about why school can’t reopen because we’re not willing to make sacrifices for our babies.”

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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