Students’ behavior and learning has been heavily impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of gettyimages.com.
ELLIOTT ROBINSON | OPINION COLUMNIST | email@example.com
When people say that we’re in the “post-pandemic era,” I have to laugh. After all, it certainly doesn’t feel like we’ve left the virus behind. Just last week, for instance, I found myself purchasing several COVID-19 tests after an accidental exposure left myself and my roommates scrambling to swab our noses. Was there some sort of national broadcast that I accidentally slept through like a Monday morning lecture? Did President Joe Biden send out a mass text message, letting us know that we can once again return to the blissful days of sweaty frat parties and standing less than six feet apart?
As much as I would love to wash my hands of COVID-19 once and for all, it’s far more reasonable to assume that the pandemic is still ongoing. Cases are on the rise across the United States, and our very own Butler Health Services recently appeared in students’ inboxes to remind us of the proper procedures for avoiding and documenting the virus.
So although the “post-pandemic era” is hardly an accurate descriptor for the current state of our country, we are no doubt attempting to return to some semblance of a normal life. However, this means that the ramifications of certain COVID-related safety measures, such as quarantines, shutdowns and social distancing, are finally beginning to catch up with us.
Undoubtedly, schools and universities experienced some of the most intense upheavals as a result of the pandemic. Education is typically the most social aspect of a young person’s life, since students are confined to the same, small spaces for approximately eight hours a day, five days a week. And that’s not to mention the pinnacle of all social activity — otherwise known as college — in which students traverse classrooms, cafeterias and residence halls with little to no adult supervision.
But when skyrocketing COVID-19 cases led to national shutdowns in 2020, these students retreated to their bedrooms in order to experience education solely through the pixels of a computer screen — with extremely dismal results. During this time, numerous health organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported increased rates of depression and anxiety. In comparison, however, much fewer studies exist documenting the negative effects of isolation on students who are now reintegrating into educational spaces.
In order to better ascertain the condition of these post-pandemic students, I spoke to senior elementary education major Mia Myers about her observations regarding students’ behavior within the last couple of years.
“Social skills are just like any other skill,” Myers said. “You have to practice, or you forget how to interact with other people. When you’re home by yourself for so long, only talking to people through a computer screen, you don’t learn how to socialize. I’ve seen it in college, especially with people who were high schoolers during the shutdowns. They don’t talk to each other in class. They’re on their phones or computers when the professor is talking. They don’t want to be spoken to or interacted with at all.”
Humans are inherently social creatures, which makes this phenomenon all the more distressing. Instead of being forced to isolate by mandated government shutdowns, students are now choosing to isolate of their own volition — and hurting their development as young adults in the process.
For example, older demographics such as high schoolers or college students are now increasingly displaying juvenile or simply socially unaware behaviors.
“Especially in the dining halls, I’ve noticed that people don’t really say thank you anymore,” Myers said. “They cut in line or stand way too close. Something I’ve also seen is people not knowing how to email their professors. They don’t know how to be polite, or they talk to professors like they’re best friends.”
These things may seem arbitrary, but collectively, they are indicative of a much larger issue facing our society today. Because students were unable to interact in social spaces for a prolonged amount of time during the pandemic, they failed to meet some of the same developmental milestones as other generations. Skills like communicating appropriately with adults or forming healthy relationships with peers are becoming alarmingly obsolete in generations affected by the pandemic.
However, this behavior isn’t just exclusive to young adults. Sophomore education major Gail Miller has worked extensively with elementary and early middle school-aged kids and reported significant delays in their social development as well.
“For kids who are entering into middle school this year, they experienced the pandemic in their second and third grade years,” Miller said. “So now we’re seeing a lot of things like not knowing how to share, or tattling on each other, or looking to adults to solve problems that at that age should be solved amongst themselves. They need adult intervention in ways that aren’t developmentally typical for middle schoolers.”
Miller added that many teachers are more concerned with addressing the gaps in content, such as reading, writing or math, that were also caused by the pandemic. Therefore, they don’t have the resources to focus on kids’ emotional learning, even if they might want to. As a result, these behaviors are able to linger far longer than they otherwise would.
“It ripples all the way up when you’ve missed any of these critical periods of development,” Miller said. “Because now we have first years in college that have missed parts of middle school or their first year of high school, which is an incredibly important time, both academically and socially. And we’re still trying to figure out how to address this problem.”
Both Myers and Miller agree that our current education system is entirely unprepared to handle these issues. As a society, we’re so preoccupied with returning to a pre-pandemic “normal” that we often fail to address the damages that quarantines and shutdowns have caused. Perhaps we don’t want to admit just how grim the situation really is — but our students are suffering as a result.
Furthermore, the lasting ramifications of the pandemic have even begun to affect students who were not in school at the time of mass shutdowns. While it’s understandable that education may have decreased in quality during the pandemic itself, there’s been little recovery in a supposedly post-COVID-19 world. This is particularly worrisome, since if these problems aren’t addressed now, students may face the possibility of failing to complete their education in unprecedented numbers.
I spoke to junior history major Cassidy Paulk, who is a substitute teacher in Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), about some of her concerns for the students she’s worked with.
“The youngest kids I work with are in second grade, so seven or eight years old,” Paulk said. “And it’s very rough. They can’t facilitate their emotions, or handle any sort of stress without constant screen time to pacify them. All they look for all the time is immediate gratification, which they get from their iPads.”
IPS is largely regarded as one of the worst school districts in the state of Indiana. But the district also facilitates the education of over 22,000 students. If we are to address the dismal state of Indiana public school education, we can’t ignore those who are most in need of our help.
“I do work with troubled kids at an inner city school, so there’s definitely a lot of trauma there,” Paulk said. “But the solution is not to just give them an iPad and ignore them. All of this technology is not helping them learn. These kids are so behind. They can’t count. They can’t read. They can’t self-soothe or communicate with others at all.”
The pandemic saw an overwhelming reliance on technology as schools moved to remote learning in order to compensate for the lack of in-person opportunities. However, too many schools have failed to transition back to more physically present learning environments — possibly due to a lack of funding and resources. The United States is facing a teacher shortage, after all, and IPS in particular has a shockingly high turnover rate for teachers due to the poor conditions. As a result, it may be cheaper to use apps and online programs, even if it’s not more effective for students’ learning.
The bottom line, however, is that many people seem to have stopped caring about education in general.
“Their parents don’t care,” Paulk said. “They’re just not interested or involved in their kids’ lives, even when their kids have obvious behavioral problems. And the system doesn’t care, either, because these kids just get pushed from grade to grade even when they’re failing. It’s heartbreaking, really.”
The pandemic may not have caused all these problems, but it certainly exposed the long list of inequalities and injustices in our education system. Unfortunately, a solution has yet to be found.
For now, small-scale action is our best defense. Substituting in schools like Paulk may not seem like the most dramatic accomplishment, but the addition of just one sympathetic teacher in an otherwise hostile environment has the potential to alter a student’s life. Furthermore, the nonprofit organization College Mentors for Kids has a chapter for Butler students located in Indianapolis, and allows IPS attendees to receive support from volunteers. Lastly, we should encourage Butler students, especially first years, to seek out counseling or academic services if needed.
At the end of the day, we need to care about this issue. Though our options for improvement are limited, there are still steps that we as a community can take. After all, the pandemic hasn’t truly ended if we are still suffering its consequences, and if we continue to ignore the failing state of our education, things will only become worse.