The mental toll of the coronavirus pandemic is unfolding inside homes throughout California, as students, parents and teachers learn to deal with a new normal of social distancing and remote learning.
All of California’s four-year public universities and community colleges have shifted most in-person classes online, and nearly all of the state’s K-12 school districts have closed, teachers across the state scramble to learn how to provide instruction remotely. Already-stressed parents overnight have become home-school teachers. Students, meanwhile, are coping with missing major milestones like commencements and SATs while those in college are preparing to postpone plans for the future.
Erika Gonzalez, a fourth-year student at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College in South Los Angeles, already had a lot on her plate before the coronavirus became a public health crisis: A first-generation college student, she juggles caring for her siblings, work and classes. Moving classes online has only added to her stress.
“It’s terrifying for various reasons. I put [in] so many years to transfer, and now I have to put life on pause,” said Gonzalez, who had planned to transfer to Mount Saint Mary’s University this fall. “It’s overwhelming because it’s out of my hands.”
Barbara Culverson, a Laney College business management student in Oakland, said she had not been concerned a few weeks ago and now wonders how she will get through daily life.
“If we have to stay inside prior to the beginning of April, I won’t be able to pay my rent,” she said.
Mental health experts say during this time of heightened anxiety, finding ways to cope and create stability are key to maintaining a healthy outlook.
It is to be expected that students of all ages will feel stress under the current circumstances, said Dr. Victor G. Carrion, a professor and vice chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Early Life Stress and Pediatric Anxiety Program.
Carrion is worried that the financial burdens families are experiencing as a result of the widespread shutdown of businesses will increase discord and, in some instances, abuse at home.
“We do know that domestic violence increases whenever stress increases, particularly financial,” Carrion said. “We’re going to see increased rates of child abuse, physical and also neglect as well.”
Even in the most ideal situations, young children might become clingy and regress in behavior. Slightly older children might complain of headaches or stomach aches, and adolescents might become withdrawn.
Carrion recommended that parents and caregivers forthrightly address unusual behaviors. He suggested adults be clear, direct and succinct when discussing the coronavirus situation and that they invite questions at any time.
“The main question children want answered is that they’re safe, that they’re secure and that their parent or caretaker feels competent in providing that safety and security,” he said. Carrion recommended parents model for children how to use mindfulness techniques like deep breathing.
Children benefit from structure and routines around studying and homework, and it is also important to make sure they have time for play or to make art, Carrion said. For older kids, journaling is helpful; exposure to media coverage about coronavirus for all ages should be limited, he said.
Katie Pettersen, president of the Santa Clara County Association of School Psychologists, said that when dealing with younger children, the best antidote is to provide accurate, contextually appropriate information.
Social emotional learning
Explain what authorities are doing to contain the threat and specific actions kids can take to keep themselves and others healthy. Doing so can keep students on track, reduce stress and even avoid flare-ups of behavioral issues, she said.
In addition, Pettersen said her classes in the KIPP charter school system have devoted class time reserved for social emotional learning to talk about the coronavirus and how discriminatory comments affect students’ peers.
That was top-of-mind for Hanh Dang, a junior at Oakland High School in the Oakland Unified School District, who said that in addition to worrying about money and access to food, her family was afraid of the potential for mob violence against Asian Americans because COVID-19 originated in China.
“I feel like I’m on house arrest because I can’t go out,” said Dang in a video conference call arranged by the youth advocacy group Californians for Justice. “I miss being around my friends, and I’m really depressed most of the time but I can’t tell my family about it.”
Like Dang, other high school students around the state expressed similarly weighty concerns, in addition to fears around distance learning, grades, tests and deadlines for scholarship applications.
Julisa Gomez, a junior at Independence High School in San Jose, said her mother was getting less work and her older sister had been put on leave from work, meaning her sister might lose her apartment and, thus, have to move in with the family with her 3-year-old child, which would make for a nine-person household and a potential scarcity of food.
“For my education, I’m scared that I will not be prepared for the AP exams in May because I’m missing a month of school and every day counts,” she said.
Liliana Ayala, a junior at Cabrillo High School in Long Beach, said it was chaotic when her district said it was closing, and she had to run around to all her teachers seeking assignments.
“I didn’t want to fall behind, especially because it’s one of the most important years in my education,” she said.
At Ayala’s home, the situation quickly grew tense, with her parents worried about finances and her mother fearing her small business would close.
“My parents immediately began asking my siblings and me for money so we’re not struggling as much to pay the bills,” Ayala said.
School-based health clinics
One release valve for pressures like these that students might have used in the past are school-based health clinics, which frequently offer mental health services. Tracy Mendez, executive director of the California School-Based Health Alliance, estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of the 277 school-based health clinics, which are usually available to roughly 300,000 students around the state, were closed.
In Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, district-operated medical and mental health clinics were closed. Staff were answering inquiries via email and text and were also referring callers to outside resources, a spokeswoman said via email.
Mendez said she is hearing that staff at still-open clinics are trying to serve as many patients as possible via telehealth, for which the state is loosening billing rules. She speculated that if the number of people who get sick from coronavirus overwhelms the medical system that staff providing school-based services will probably be repurposed to handle the extra load, and that will leave even less capacity for students.
For the moment, Deshae Lee, a senior at MacLane High School in Fresno, was just worried about how she would complete her studies. Lee was compelled to start supervising her two brothers, ages 1 and 9, in order to protect her grandmother from possible exposure to the coronavirus, which is a particular threat to elderly people and those with medical conditions.
One particular concern Lee had was that she would not excel with an online class, which she expected she would have for the rest of the semester for the English course she has been taking at Fresno City College.
“I know me, and I’m not good with online classes because I get distracted easily,” she said. Lee also was worried about upcoming AP exams and what would happen with the scholarship applications she had not completed with her counselor when school closed.
The move to online classes has also created unexpected barriers for college students, especially for those without proper work stations or technology at home or who are tackling classes that either require tutoring outside class or hands-on learning.
Kimberly Estrada, a full-time student who lives near Echo Park and attends Santa Monica College, understands the decisions being made. That doesn’t make the difficulties of it any easier.
‘It has taken a big toll in my life’
“This entire process is very aggravating. For me, personally, it has taken a big toll in my life because it’s affected how I function as a human being. I mean I can’t even go to the gym,” she said in an email. “Not only that, but a major part of my life is work, and as far as my family and myself goes, this has impacted the way we deal with our finances due to…cut hours” at work.
On March 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all Californians to stay at home, marking the first mandatory restriction in the state’s fight against the novel coronavirus. The governor’s order comes after 19 people have died and an additional 982 have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus in California.
To approach such a frightening subject, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a federally funded program aimed at improving care for traumatized children and their families, has issued suggestions for how to talk to children about the coronavirus. They include tips for how to manage children who are home from school due to closures and how to encourage healthy behaviors in non-stress inducing ways.
Melissa Brymer, director of terrorism and disaster programs for the UCLA–Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, said that it is important to be specific for kids who have anxiety disorders, like obsessive-compulsive disorder, that hand-washing is only needed at particular times. Brymer’s organization coordinates the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a federally funded initiative involving more than 100 clinics across the country.
“It shows you the complexity of COVID-19, and how we need to make sure that there are clear messages for broad audiences,” Brymer said, “but also how we help schools or clinics prepare for questions from young people who might have unique needs.”
When discussing school closures or reopenings, Brymer said it is best for students to be told the rationale behind decisions so that they don’t panic.
“It is important for kids to understand that not everyone in the community is sick, but that this is a way to stop the spread of the virus,” Brymer said.
That was the message San Francisco Unified’s Lowell High School delivered to its nearly 2,800 students last week, as students returned from a three-school-day closure after a school parent tested positive for coronavirus. The school district subsequently announced it would close all 113 of its schools from March 16 through April 3.
Lowell High English teacher Samuel Williams last week said that a major cause of stress for students is how a school closure would cause students to miss academic deadlines, particularly for upcoming advanced placement exams.
Lowell is one of the state’s highest-performing public high schools based on state-required tests and it has consistently ranked No. 1 in the Western Region for the number of Advanced Placement Exams given, according to the school’s website.
For some college students, meanwhile, the pressures of juggling work and school are proving increasingly difficult.
Gilbert Rivera, a 26-year-old physics graduate student at Cal State LA, said he was ready for the worst.
“I personally have been doomsday prepping, making sure I grab extra cans of food, washing my hands,” Rivera said, adding that he had taken chemistry classes as an undergraduate so he made his own 70 percent ethanol spray. “I carry hand sanitizer in my pocket. I have disinfectant wipes just to be safe.”
Last week, UC Berkeley issued an advisory on managing fears and anxiety due to the coronavirus. Like other guides, it suggested keeping perspective and limiting media intake on the subject. It also cautioned against assuming that people with a cough or a fever are infected.
Rivera says his biggest concerns are centered on how people respond during a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.
“I am more scared about people being scared and the panic it causes,” he said. “People often panic when there is an earthquake or natural disaster. They freak out and buy things and misinformation kind of goes around and spreads and that also is kind of like a virus.”
* Ryan Barba, Marlene Cordova, Kasper Dilmaghani and Kilmer Salinas contributed to this story. Barba and Dilmaghani are students at Laney College in Oakland. Cordova and Salinas are students at Cal State L.A. All are contributing reporters to the EdSource California Student Journalism Corps.