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Student study tracks COVID-19 stress levels in classrooms

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WATCH ABOVE: Nearing a year of pandemic restrictions, school closures and physical distancing, a University of Calgary researcher is encouraged by how students are dealing with stress. Kendra Slugoski reports – Feb 4, 2021

Nearing a year of pandemic restrictions, school closures and physical distancing, a University of Calgary researcher is encouraged by how students are dealing with stress.

Dr. Kelly Dean Schwartz, an associate professor in school and applied child psychology at the University of Calgary, has been measuring responses throughout the school year and said for the most part, the majority of students taking part in the study are dealing with the ups and downs.

“You couldn’t construct kind of a worse experience for students to go back and forth, back and forth to school,” said Schwartz, “having their social relationships again cut off.”

The COVID-19 and Student Well-Being study has so far given educators in Calgary and Edmonton a snapshot of how students are coping and who may need more help.

More than 2,400 students aged 12 to 18 completed the first wave of the study when they returned to school in September 2020.

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Schwartz said the students showed a reasonable level of concern about their own health and contracting COVID, but they were more stressed about being stuck at home.

More than seven out of 10 youth said they were relying on their family for support.

“Although they love their families and appreciate the support, I think they’re also feeling a little bit smothered,” said Schwartz.

Typically, said Schwartz, friends and families would be competing for support and closeness but right now, that peer support is lagging behind the parents.

While the survey did not take into account any pre-existing conditions or stressors, the mental health screen pointed to about one in five youth exceeding the critical threshold for some mental health indicators.

Schwartz said any student feeling stressed is concerning. He said the majority of students that responded with higher levels of stress were females and older aged youth — many stated they were losing hope and unsure of the future.

“As a psychologist, I look at that and go, ‘That’s a rather typical response,'” said Schwartz, “especially for a teenager who has really had their social world turned upside down.”

The latest round of surveys was collected in December — after all junior and senior high students in Alberta were forced back to online learning on Nov. 30, 2020, until after the winter break.

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Read more: ‘I was immediately saddened and surprised’: Alberta mom voices concerns over return to online learning

Schwartz said the most recent data showed a slight bump in critical stress levels.

At some point, he said, in just 10 weeks from the start of school in September, 28 per cent of the students had already been forced to quarantine at home because of a close contact in school.

Adam Harroun, a Grade 8 student in Edmonton, said his school has had two confirmed COVID-19 cases.

The 13-year old called this school year “weird” and said some assignments were difficult to do online.

Harroun prefers in-person learning but is missing out on school assemblies, field trips and socializing with friends in the hallways.

“You kind of have to stay cooped up in your classroom all day,” said Harroun.

Harroun said he has learned to “go with the flow” in school and is happy to at least have friends in his class.

He added the school counsellor sometimes comes to his classroom and every one of his teachers has been open to help struggling students.

The Calgary Board of Education said the data collected from the student surveys has so far helped pinpoint who needs more help and if the supports they’re providing are working.

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“Being in-person or online, “said Joanne Pitman, superintendent of school improvement, “one of the most important pieces to all of it is stability and routine.”

Read more: Morale at an ‘all-time low’: Post-secondary students grapple with COVID-19 fatigue

Pitman added some schools have had to manage the fear of being forced into quarantine again and again.

Students will answer another round of COVID questions at the end of February and before the end of the school year in June.

Having a years’ worth of data will be critical to re-entry strategies in the fall.

“I don’t think we can proceed as normal,” said Pitman.

The superintendent said schools will again need to make sure students feel comfortable and confident once back in class — and determine what students missed over the past year. She said that data could change how mental health supports are delivered across the city.

Schwartz will be watching to see if the stress levels climb considerably during the remainder of the COVID school year and for parents with children having a difficult time — he recommends a reset of expectations.

“Nothing was normal here, so the less we can expect it to be normal, probably the better we’re all going to cope with this.”

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