AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
To put it bluntly, this past year...
RAFAEL STERNIDORI: It sucked, to be honest.
CORNISH: For 16-year-old Rafael Sternidori (ph), at least.
R STERNIDORI: Yeah. Like, I didn't really see anyone for months, you know, in terms of socialization. Like, I lost most of my friends. So it was - it sucked.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right. You recording?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes, I am.
CORNISH: This past week...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Can you say hello?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Hi.
CORNISH: We invested a little time.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Uh...
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I'm good.
CORNISH: And hearing from some kids...
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Oh, I dropped the phone.
CORNISH: ...Age 6...
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: I'm sorry. Say that again.
CORNISH: ...And up.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: I'm 9.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: I'm 11.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #8: I'm 16.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #9: I am a 17-year-old.
CORNISH: They're entering another pandemic school year. And yeah, in a lot of ways, it's been rough.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #10: There wasn't really anything I liked about Zoom.
CORNISH: But in other ways...
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #11: I never had to rush in the mornings.
CORNISH: ...The kids were all right.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #12: I wasn't distracted by talking to my friends.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #13: And it's allowed me to grow a lot personally.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #14: Honestly, there is absolutely nothing that I miss about traditional high school.
CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - once again, kids are having to make a lot of adjustments as they start a third school year during the coronavirus pandemic.
NOLAN KHURU: On the first day this year, finally, once you like, step on the bus, you're like - you're having second thoughts, like - uh...
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CORNISH: Kids weigh in on taking the good with the bad. And two experts weigh in on how to help them cope. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Monday, September 6.
It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. For 16-year-old Rafael Sternidori in Lubbock, Texas, the last few years of pandemic's school - well, they've been a blur.
R STERNIDORI: I was just planning to just enjoy myself for, like, another year and just bathe in not being an adult.
CORNISH: Rafael switched schools during the pandemic, enrolled in a bunch of online classes, and is actually on track to graduate early. Now it feels like kind of a shock.
R STERNIDORI: And now I have to start looking forward to being in college and doing those sort of things. And I don't know if I'm ready, to be honest.
CORNISH: Same goes for Rafael's little brother, Alex (ph).
ALEX STERNIDORI: Things were a lot easier for me. I was like - I understanded things.
CORNISH: Alex is 10. He liked seeing his friends at school. He liked the playground, but he says...
A STERNIDORI: I wasn't really learning anything. And sometimes I wouldn't do good at tests.
CORNISH: Since school went remote, Alex has fallen into a rhythm. His grades are up. He even joined a Minecraft club through his online school, which allowed him to meet new friends.
A STERNIDORI: I just liked it.
CORNISH: So Alex is excited to keep schooling at home. Ten-year-old Jacob Druiga (ph) is excited for the opposite.
JACOB DRUIGA: I'm very excited to go back in, like, person for an actual year, hopefully, also to see my friends again.
CORNISH: Jacob is a fifth-grader in Raleigh, N.C., and he's not that worried about COVID and going back to school. In fact, his whole family caught it last year. He's worried about the normal stuff - getting around, how to find his classes.
JACOB: What I would normally be worried about in, like, a normal first day.
KIM DRUIGA: You sure you're not worried about COVID?
CORNISH: That's Jacob's mom, Kim.
JACOB: As long as I'm wearing my mask, not really.
CORNISH: We heard this from a lot of kids. Despite the attention paid by parents and school boards to mask mandates, a lot of kids will tell you it's not that big of a deal.
N KHURU: I don't like that we're having to wear our masks and all that, but at least we get to go to school. And that's really all that's enough for me.
CORNISH: Nine-year-old Nolan Khuru (ph) in Bloomingdale, Ill., told us he's nervous and excited to go back. That was him you heard earlier talking about that first step on the school bus. Well, we talked to Nolan's little brother, Austin, too, who's 6.
AUSTIN KHURU: Yep. Nope.
CORNISH: That's basically how it went.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Sorry, it was mostly just one-word answers (laughter).
CORNISH: Nolan, the older one, said, yeah, he did OK staying on task at home, sometimes.
N KHURU: Other times Austin's yelling really loud, like, my brother has a computer.
CORNISH: Back in school this year, he's thinking of joining the orchestra or Earth club. And the nerves, that's just normal first day stuff.
N KHURU: I'm excited that we're finally being able to get closer, talk more back in school for longer periods of time.
CORNISH: And not just with other kids but with teachers - we heard time and time again that kids missed having a chance - you know, when they were not in school full time - to ask their teachers questions, to get one-on-one help, see examples up close.
LEAH BRENNER: I want to be able to engage with other students and teachers face to face directly whenever I need it.
CORNISH: Seventeen-year-old Leah Brenner (ph) from Soldotna, Alaska, is in a hybrid model for her senior year of high school, able to pick some classes in person and take others remotely. She's also taking some college classes, and study groups make up for time she misses with friends in school.
L BRENNER: We just, like, meet up, maybe go get coffee. We're just there physically with each other. Like, it's moral support, emotional support, just to get through these classes, you know?
CORNISH: But for younger kids, it's hard to stay connected. Leah's little sister, Carmen (ph), for example, has limited options.
CARMEN BRENNER: I was supposed to get my sister's phone. That's what I thought was going to happen.
CORNISH: Carmen's 11. And since her school also has a remote option this year, her mom is sticking with it. Carmen was a little uneasy about that part, knowing more kids were going back in person.
C BRENNER: I was feeling a little bit nervous because I was like, what if no one likes me? What if there's, like, only five people? But there was enough people. But so far, I'm doing good.
CORNISH: Carmen's mom Katie (ph) says she can go back in person once she can get vaccinated. The family's already lost multiple family members to COVID-19. But the decision to keep Carmen home wasn't easy, especially when online learning wasn't fully up and running for the first day of school.
KATIE BRENNER: I want to give them grace and say that they did the best they could. But when all of her peers were starting, there was no phone call. There was no email. And that feeling of watching your daughter feel isolated and alone, that was really hard.
CORNISH: Isolated and alone - that's the situation many students could be in if they get sick and need to quarantine. A lot of school districts this year have done away with remote learning altogether, even if a kid needs to stay home, while many parents, of course, are back at work full time.
DRUIGA: So it's going to be...
JACOB: That means you would also - you would have to help Joey (ph).
DRUIGA: I would have to be home. Well, I would also have to be home, because if you're quarantining, then - I mean, you can't be home alone.
CORNISH: Again, that's 10-year-old Jacob and his mom.
DRUIGA: Yeah. So that part I - yeah, I don't know. That's going to be hard. But I'll worry about that. You don't have to worry about that.
JACOB: Let's just hope we don't get COVID.
DRUIGA: Well, yeah.
DRUIGA: And you'll get the vaccine as soon as you can.
JACOB: Yes. When is it coming out?
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CORNISH: Kids are resilient. They've adjusted and readjusted again and again over the last year and a half. But child education and development experts say when you look at the research, it's clear that lots of kids have suffered during the pandemic.
KATIE MCLAUGHLIN: So when kids are worried, when they're feeling socially anxious, when they're experiencing frustration or other intense emotions, it can interfere with their ability to pay attention in the classroom, to focus on their schoolwork. And I think you heard that reflected at the beginning of the piece.
CORNISH: That's Katie McLaughlin, a psychologist at Harvard University, who spoke to us about the social and emotional effects of the pandemic on children.
ROBIN LAKE: Yes. Well, reports are showing very consistently that kids learned less.
CORNISH: And that's Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Education, where they looked at the impact of the pandemic on learning. The three of us spoke this past week about what kids have been dealing with as they enter a third pandemic school year and what can be done about it. To start, Robin Lake explained that researchers have actually quantified how much learning kids have lost during the pandemic.
LAKE: For the average American students, it's several months less learning. But the averages really mask variation, important individual experience for kids that are reflected in the data. And, you know, as all of us know, kids had wildly different experiences.
CORNISH: We very much heard that - right? - in some of the young people that we heard just a few minutes ago. Katie McLaughlin, school is such a big part of kids' lives. Did this create like a really fundamental disruption in mental health?
MCLAUGHLIN: Absolutely. So far, in a way, the factor that we have found to be more strongly related to increases in mental health problems among kids over the past year and a half is their exposure to pandemic-related stressors, things that disrupted daily life, that forced us to adapt and change and cope. Across a range of studies, we've seen that about twice as many children are reporting meaningful symptoms of depression, anxiety or behavior problems than before the pandemic.
CORNISH: And what does that look like in a kid? I don't know if you're talking about a 5-year-old or a 15-year-old.
MCLAUGHLIN: So in young children, this might look like worry about interacting with a remote platform, concerns about going back to school, fear for safety of their parents or other family members. For other kids, it can look more like anger outbursts, frustration, difficulty paying attention to things that they used to be able to without problem. And of course, this is a concern as children return to school because we know that these types of mental health problems can negatively impact their performance in school.
CORNISH: Robin, I want to ask - let me jump in for a second because I think this is a good point. We heard expressions of frustration at just, like, the act of doing this remote learning - right? - like, the nitty-gritty of getting on and offline and trying to get the attention of your teacher and essentially kind of the pitfalls of remote learning. Can you talk about whether or not any of your research found that those things became a problem?
LAKE: Sure. Remote learning was bumpy, and everybody was trying to figure it out on the fly. So one of the biggest problems that we saw was that teachers really didn't have the supports that they needed to be able to do this very effectively. In many cases, kids didn't have access to very much live instruction, meaning just, you know, direct time with their teachers, interactions with their classmates. So it was very, very frustrating for everybody, for...
CORNISH: Which is interesting because it was supposed to be the way of the future, right?
CORNISH: Until everyone had this, let's say, crash course in trying to do it.
LAKE: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I will say that there were very important discoveries along the way. Some kids loved remote learning and have continued to and will stay with it. They really found that they were able to focus or they had relief from bullying or other things in their schools that were difficult for them. And some teachers loved it. And I think there's been, you know, an important learning curve where folks have gotten better at it. And the trick going forward is figuring out how remote learning can just be a tool for us and woven into the fabric of public schooling.
But the first thing I think we need to do is make sure that, as much as possible, kids can stay in school this year. I mean, I hate to say it. It's a very basic thing. But keeping kids safe and committing to making sure that they can stay learning in-person throughout the year is a very important starting point.
CORNISH: It sounds easy, but politically, depending on where you are, that's a tough one.
LAKE: Right. So I think it bears saying, we've got to make that commitment - safe and learning throughout the year. And then once they're back in their seats or if they have to be in remote learning again, even just for a two-week quarantine period, there we need to make sure that we don't just go on with business as usual in what can often be a one-size-fits-all education system that kind of moves ahead and doesn't pay attention to individualized learning needs.
And then we've got to tie those strategies with evidence-based solutions like tutoring programs. And thankfully, the federal government has provided additional supports, financial supports for schools so they can pay for those kinds of programs.
CORNISH: And Katie, for you, looking ahead or things you're going to be looking out for in terms of challenges - or does being back in school physically kind of make things better?
MCLAUGHLIN: So first, schools are going to need to be prepared for the fact that kids are going to be exhibiting more symptoms of mental health problems than usual. There's going to be more anxiety, more frustration in the classroom than in a typical year. And this is especially true in the communities that were most impacted by the pandemic, which have historically been communities that are least likely to have access to good quality mental health services at school.
And a final point I would emphasize is that as we transition back, schools really need to focus on reconnecting and building relationships with students, both with teachers and among students themselves, as a first step to make sure that students feel connected and cared for in their school community. Establishing those supportive relationships with students after a year and a half of remote learning is going to provide an important foundation that's going to support that better learning over the next year.
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CORNISH: That's Katie McLaughlin, Harvard professor and clinical psychologist. Thank you for being with us.
MCLAUGHLIN: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: And Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education - that's at the University of Washington. Thank you to you.
LAKE: Thank you, Audie.
CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.
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