New Brunswick

High school students say education during pandemic taking mental health toll

Students at Sussex Regional High School shared their struggles with mental health and loneliness attending school during the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of a student-made documentary.

Changed learning environment has led to concerns over quality of education, chances of getting into university

Maggie Melvin, a Grade 12 student at Sussex Regional High School, made a documentary for one of her classes, for which she interviewed other students about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the school experience and their mental health. (Submitted/Maggie Melvin)

"It sucks."

"It's been completely destroyed."

"I'm down in the dumps most days."

Those were the remarks from some Grade 12 students at Sussex Regional High School who shared how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their final year, as part of a documentary made by fellow students.

"The grads of 2021 won't remember this year for their winter formal or their prom," said Maggie Melvin, the documentary's co-creator, in the introduction.

"They'll remember it instead for the social distancing, arrows on the floor, online learning and face masks."

Shedding light on students' struggles

In an interview with Shift on Monday, Melvin, who filmed the documentary with classmate Jadon Williams, said she wanted to document the experiences of students, given how much the pandemic has impacted their school experience.

"Everyone is really struggling mentally for sure," she said.

"The hardest part is just being separated from the people that we've been going to school with for 13 years, and all of a sudden, we can't see them. We are from a small town. so everyone's really close."

Because of the pandemic, high schools in New Brunswick have been required to implement a blended learning model, with the student population alternating between in-person classes and at-home learning every other day.

That means some students have been separated from their friends.

"I was most looking forward to just the day-to-day stuff like sitting with your friends on the bench in the morning, or just going out to lunch with everyone, but now you don't even see half your grad class or half your friends, even at school," said one student, who was interviewed for the documentary.

Melvin said the blended model has also affected the quality of the education she and her peers are getting, which has led to concerns over being accepted to university or college.

"Math and sciences, they're easy enough to separate the curriculum online and in school." she said.

"But for arts classes and more of the electives, they're harder to do at home, so you're really not getting any substance in the class."

Balancing restrictions with mental health worries

Student mental health is an issue the Department of Education takes seriously, but the blended learning model for high school students will remain in place, said Education Minister Dominic Cardy.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy (Ed Hunter/CBC)

In an interview Tuesday, he said concern for student mental health is the reason he pushed to keep schools open as much as possible throughout the pandemic, in order to give students as much opportunity to interact with their peers.

Cardy said the department is also working to provide additional counselling services and accelerate work to expand the range of options for student mental health supports.

"COVID-19 is obviously the number one concern, but the mental health concerns are number two, and that's part of the reason that I've been very strong in trying to push the schools to remain open as much as possible.

"As long as Public Health tells me that it's safe, I want the schools to be open for exactly those reasons, that absolutely the academic concerns are there as well, but this is a year when around the world schooling has been completely upset."

Sarah Dow-Fleisner, assistant professor in the school of social work at the University of British Columbia. (Submitted)

Pandemic coincides with pivotal developmental period

High school students are particularly prone to being affected by the changes that have been brought on by the pandemic, said Dr. Sarah Dow-Fleisner, an assistant professor in the school of social work at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus.

"Adolescents are in a really unique developmental stage," Dow-Fleisner said.

"This is really the fist time when we think of cognitive development, that they have some of the abilities now to think really abstractly, to have some complex ways of thinking, so they're recognizing more than young children that this has long-lasting impacts."

They're also at a stage where they're typically moving away from identifying with family groups, and gravitating instead to peer groups.

However, that natural development has been "roadblocked" by the pandemic and the restrictions they have to live with at school and in the community.

"They're staying at home. They're not necessarily having those peer interactions that are informal."

Coping with an unusual year

It's important for teachers and parents to offer consistent messaging to adolescents on the importance of mask-wearing, hand hygiene and social distancing to keep them and their community safe, Dow-Fleisner said.

At the same time, simple practices such as maintaining a routine can help students feel a sense of normalcy even amid the other changes, she said.

"One of the biggest losses by not going to school regularly is a lack of routine. This can lead to poor sleeping habits and sedentary behaviour, all of which can affect mental health.

"So finding a way to keep a routine [is important] even if you have an online class."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aidan Cox

Web reporter/editor

Aidan Cox is a web reporter and editor for the CBC based in Fredericton.

With files from Shift

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