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St. Louis area school district administrators address the pandemic’s impact on student development

Rear view of elementary students attending a class in the classroom.

The COVID-19 pandemic has required flexibility and resilience as people navigate changing guidance and rules in a variety of public venues. Students of all ages experienced some of the most dramatic shifts in routine as they pivoted to virtual learning and back again – changes that took a toll on many young people.

Local school district administrators say they see more academic, social and emotional difficulties among students since returning to classrooms. “We did see evidence of more students struggling both academically and with the social/emotional side of things,” confirms Matthew Bailey, assistant superintendent of student services for the Kirkwood School District. “We saw an increase in the number of acting-out behaviors, an increase in the number of students reporting potential self-harm or harmful thoughts, an increase in student apathy – meaning they just weren’t motivated or connected to school – and we did see an increase in absences.”

Diverse group of teenage high school students sitting at desks during detention, looking bored and depressed

The Ladue School District reports similar phenomena. “As we have reviewed our data as a district, we have found that the greater areas of concern are in the social/emotional realm,” says Amy Zielinski, Ladue Schools’ assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “Although we have seen a bit of a slide in certain areas of our academic data, it is less than the national average in both ELA [English language arts] and math.”

Both school districts were quick to implement support structures for struggling students. Even before the pandemic, the Kirkwood school board recognized the importance of social and emotional student health, Bailey says, and acted by assessing district programs to address these issues, partnering with area agencies for additional services, increasing staffing of school counselors and district social workers, and adding a therapeutic counselor at the high school level.

“That mainly came from students themselves overwhelmingly saying they needed additional therapeutic support in place,” Bailey adds. He credits high school journalism students – who wrote about student mental health concerns and the increasing need for social and emotional support – with bringing more attention to the urgency of the issue.

“After reading the article, I reached out and met with many students several times and got a lot of feedback from them,” Bailey says. The district invited several students to join a wellness committee where they could share their concerns with district leaders and collaborate on solutions.

“Ladue Schools has a fully integrated Social and Emotional Behavior Team in our eight schools to provide students with the support they need beyond academics,” says Jim Wipke, Ladue Schools’ superintendent. “This team is comprised of one school psychologist, one behavior interventionist, one social worker and two educational support counselors. These talented individuals all work side by side with our counselor teams.”

Male College Student Meeting With Campus Counselor Discussing Mental Health Issues

Bailey notes that not all students experienced difficulties due to the pandemic’s forced pivot to virtual learning. For some, he says, the online environment provided more freedom of expression and the ability to structure schedules that worked better with individuals’ own needs. However, many other students found the virtual environment challenging and the return to in-person learning difficult.

“While we were in person, we were also focused on keeping distanced, keeping separated and not necessarily doing things we did before,” Bailey says. “I think it just felt unusual and different for our students, and a lot of them struggled to adjust to not having a device in their hands nonstop.”

While school officials and teachers work to support students, Bailey notes that parents should be aware of any signs that their child is struggling, such as changes in behavior or disinterest in friends, family and activities. He urges parents to regularly communicate with their kids and seek help if needed.

“If they need somebody, there’s always someone at school that they can connect with,” Bailey says. “They can start with the teachers, the counselors, the principal – all the folks who are involved in the schools will make sure they direct parents to the right supports if needed.”

Kirkwood School District, 1099 Milwaukee St., Kirkwood, 314-213-6100, kirkwoodschools.org

Ladue Schools, 9703 Conway Road, St. Louis, 314-994-7080, ladueschools.net

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Connie, a native of St. Charles and graduate of the MU School of Journalism, is a freelance writer and editor who contributes to print and online publications for clients throughout the region. She enjoys travel, hiking, kayaking and drinking good coffee

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