Two heroic teachers refuse to let a pandemic stop them from reaching underserved youth in their communities
Photo courtesy of Lily Read
True

Now more than ever, teachers are America's unsung heroes. They are taking on the overwhelming task of not only educating our children but finding creative and effective ways to do it in an unpredictable virtual learning environment.

Lily Read and Justin Bernard, two Massachusetts educators from one of the most diverse public high schools in the U.S. (over 25 different languages are spoken in the student body!), feel ready to meet the challenges of this unprecedented school year. Their goal: find ways to make virtual education "as joyful as possible" to help support teenagers during quarantine.

"Our school is very economically, racially, and linguistically diverse," said Read, "which means meeting the needs for all those students is incredibly complex." That wide range of diversity means that they spend a lot of time in professional development, preparing to meet students where they are. This summer, educators in their district spent weeks learning everything from how to provide emotional and social support via virtual platforms, to meeting 504 plans and Individual Educational Plans for disabled students virtually, to mastering the various online programs necessary for instruction.

Bernard, now in his fifth year of teaching, also coaches the high school football team. Prior to the pandemic, there were clear expectations for student athletes, with clear goals and incentives to keep their grades up. Now, Bernard is concerned that student athletes will begin to fall through the cracks without the structure of physically going to school each day, and he is on a mission to do everything he can to keep that from happening.


Photo courtesy of Justin Bernard

"We have students from all different backgrounds and sports are important to them, not just because they have fun, but also because it also involves study hall, team building stuff, accountability for staying on top of their grades, and making sure they are going to class." When Covid-19 hit, all of that disappeared and students felt the impact immediately. Bernard stepped in to open spaces for socially distant workouts to provide a sense of normalcy. And in the months since the onset of the pandemic, he began running study halls for his football players, checking in and keeping communication open to support the kids as much as possible beyond the field and the classroom.

Photo courtesy of Lily Read

"Aside from a child's home, no other setting has more influence on a child's health and well-being than their school," according to the Center for Disease Control. Schools not only provide educational instruction, but also social and emotional guidance, predictability, meals, and safety. When schools unexpectedly shut down in March 2020 due to Covid-19, over 56 million students lost access to that safety net.

Lack of structure and supervision aren't the only challenges students face as they transition into a virtual learning environment. With virtual learning, their home lives are now on display. Read recognized this immediately when students expressed their concerns. "One of the things that we know is an issue for a lot of our students is the fact that they may live in situations that are maybe not conducive to showing their classmates on Zoom or Google Meets...it just causes them additional stress."

Because of this, one of the things she did to prepare for this school year involved buying every trifold poster board she could find—really brightly colored ones—and offer them to her students to decorate and put behind themselves when they are in "class." Read plans to personally deliver the boards to students and/or meet them at a local park so they can pick up art supplies and poster boards and hopes to make the project fun. "We are hoping this will get kids to have more face time because we know that having students on camera is actually going to benefit them if we do so in a way that will avoid actually increasing their anxiety."

The transition from in-person instruction to virtual classrooms isn't easy, but kids need structure—especially those who live in high-risk environments. And educators are thinking creatively to solve the challenges that students are facing, again reminding us how valuable teachers are to the future of our society.

"We are committed to doing everything we can to help our students feel safe, loved, supported, and keep them learning. No matter what happens in the next few months, we are all experiencing these challenges together—and we will overcome them, together," said Read.

Photo courtesy of Lily Read

Another hurdle is figuring out how to virtually teach the incoming preschoolers and kindergarteners who are not yet able to read or type and getting crucial internet access to those families. Teaching a room full of wiggly 4-year-olds is challenging in a regular classroom setting—finding ways to keep them engaged through a screen is a whole new level of difficulty.

These concerns are part of the reason why getting kids back in school (safely!) and with equitable access to technology has been the top priority of educators and parents. Procter & Gamble and United Way are working together to bridge the digital divide. No matter what age, in times when kids can't be in the classroom, families need to have affordable internet so they can stay on track with their education; otherwise, students will fall further behind.

If you would like to help teachers and families during this incredibly challenging time, P&G Good Everyday make it easy by turning your everyday actions into extraordinary acts of good.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

TikTok about '80s childhood is a total Gen X flashback.

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