Sherri Kurtz’s 9-year-old son Michael has autism and ADHD. “He’s got a lot going on, but he’s a very smart, brilliant child,” Kurtz said.
She’s concerned about how Michael will fare as Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] begins an unprecedented school year with virtual learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. Focusing in a remote environment can be difficult for children like Michael, who’s going into fourth grade.
And, more broadly, experts have reason to believe many students’ mental health could take a toll due to the realities of virtual learning.
The North Side family has seen a lot of success for Michael at his school, Allegheny Traditional Academy, where Kurtz said Michael received excellent, thoughtful assistance.
“He was happy. The teachers were great with him,” Kurtz said. “And then it was like, boom. We were like 10 steps ahead. Now we took 10 steps behind.”
As the fall approaches and the 23,000 PPS students go back to school online, some parents of children with mental health needs are worried they may not receive the attention and assistance they require because of the virtual environment.
The PPS school board voted unanimously in July to do remote instruction for the first nine weeks of the 2020-21 school year. Experts predict that virtual instruction could lead to worsened mental health conditions for children because of factors like a decrease in social interaction and an increase in screen time.
Schools also serve as one of the foremost mental health resources for children. Based on 2012-2015 National Survey of Drug Use and Health data, 57% of adolescents who used any mental health services took advantage of some school-based mental health service, according to an April study published in Jama Pediatrics.
Virtual learning and mental health
PPS plans to address the needs of its students’ mental health in the virtual environment but is also planning for if classes return physically to the schools full time or part time as the school year progresses.
“We want to make sure that we rebuild relationships,” said Supervisor of Psychological Services Isaac Tarbell in an August livestream. “At the end of the day, we want to rebuild relationships with students and their teachers, with families and schools, with communities and schools, because as we reopen, we realize that a lot of those relationships need worked on.”
Both in-house and contracted mental health professionals will be trained to use Microsoft Teams and Schoology so that staff and parents can communicate with them about any student who may need help.
“Everything should be online the first day of school, with the acknowledgement that there will be some hiccups,” Tarbell said. “But largely, staff will be trained and ready to implement school-based behavioral and mental health resources day one of the school year.”
PPS also plans to perform a survey to get a better sense of the student body’s needs and well-being, according to Assistant Superintendent Rodney Necciai. The district hopes teachers will continue to identify students who may need help.
“The teachers are basically our front line and will identify students and bring them to those teams and those teams staff those students and work with families to map them onto either appropriate community-based resources or school-based resources,” Tarbell said.
Virtual learning environments make identifying students with mental health needs difficult. One reason is that students are still largely operating in their familiar home setting. Brittney Singletary, a licensed clinical social worker with Sprout Center for Emotional Growth and Development, said some struggling students could fall under the radar in virtual settings. For many children, school is the first introduction to formal, structured environments.
“When higher expectations are put on in the school environment, in this formal, structured setting, what you notice is a lot of behaviors possibly coming out,” Singletary said. “You notice, possibly, learning concerns…”
While Kurtz understands the safety risks that the pandemic brings, she wishes parents had the option to send their children back to school in person. She is not confident Michael will receive the help he needs in a virtual environment.
“I cannot give him a routine or a structure at home,” Kurtz said. “I have two working parents in this home. I have a grandma that watches my children — there’s no way she can give him structure and know how to do fourth grade.”
Matt Petras is a freelance reporter and educator based in the Pittsburgh area. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @mattApetras.