Students faced anxiety, but remained resilient in pandemic: study

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Calgary schools are vowing to be extra vigilant in supporting student mental health this fall after a University of Calgary survey showed teens suffered “significant social and academic losses” during the pandemic.

According to the COVID-19 and Student Well Being Study, which collected data across Alberta’s four metro districts, students aged 12 to 18 faced rising stress and anxiety peaking this past spring, particularly with the constant back and forth of in-person and online learning.

But, according to Kelly Dean Schwartz, who led the U of C’s research, most of the 1,500 students surveyed also found multiple ways to get support and maintained a consistent level of resiliency.

“Overwhelmingly we found the majority of students, 70 plus per cent, were handling stress well, were finding solid support through caregivers, peers and teachers,” said Schwartz, an associate professor at U of C’s Werklund School of Education in the applied child psychology program.

“Overall, resiliency factors stayed stable. And that’s a testament to parents, families and teachers who went way overboard in being attuned to kids and their needs.”

Still, the data showed stress levels among students did exceed the “critical cutoff” for adolescents, where stress significantly increased from September 2020 to June 2021.

At the start of the year, 22 per cent of students faced stress, but by the end of the year, up to 30 per cent of those surveyed had stress that interfered with daily routines, like sleeping, eating, or extracurricular activity.

Schwartz explained that exceeding the critical cutoff can also mean students are facing so much stress they may need such outside supports as counselling in some situations.

“A lot of the students’ frustration was having to move from in-person to online learning, changing expectations, and not having access to available supports.

“The key difference was available and accessible — you can have support that’s available, but it may not be readily accessible.”

Schwartz explained older, high school-aged students faced the most stress academically, worrying about achieving grades high enough to meet post-secondary requirements.

But most importantly, Schwartz said, when students reconvene in the fall, the fallout of the pandemic will still be evident, and school boards will have to be closely in tune with student need.

“The residue of this pandemic could be that we have students who have been managing OK, but now as life returns to pre-pandemic norms, there are still expectations socially and academically.

“That doesn’t mean less stress, in many cases it could mean more stress.”

Joanne Pitman, superintendent for school improvement at the Calgary Board of Education, said staff will be extra vigilant over the first few weeks of school to watch how students are adjusting.

Teachers and school staff, she added, will also ensure families are aware of available resources to support mental health from peer supports and counselling within schools to community supports and health services in more severe circumstances.

“We’ll be working closely with all of our school to ensure teachers have those universal tools,” Pitman said.

“We need to make sure our families and our students and staff are all clear on how to access which support.

“But we also need to ensure we don’t enter school at a deficit, that it is not a panic, and that it is a celebration.”

Andrea Holowka, superintendent learning services at the Calgary Catholic School District, agreed teachers need to pay close attention to students, a sort of “watchful waiting” to see how they adjust in the first few days and weeks.

“We have a lot of students who have been online for a year, or longer. And this fall will be the first time anyone has laid eyes on them outside of their family for quite some time.

“So our teachers need to keep a very watchful eye, and be prepared to triage needs appropriately.”

Meanwhile, the province is also collecting data around student well-being this summer through a series of surveys and telephone town halls this month.

The Child and Youth Well Being Review is part of a government effort to explore new ways to support students whose mental health was impacted by the pandemic.

Albertans are invited to share their stories next Thursday and Friday evening, or take the survey through this link:

https://www.alberta.ca/child-and-youth-well-being-review.aspx

Schwartz is among a collection of experts on the provincial panel which includes researchers, educators, health care professionals, and mental health experts, who will sort through the responses and make recommendations.

“We’ve got the resources, we may just need to reposition them, or do something creative.

“But it needs to involve change, and new access, so that help doesn’t involve sitting in an emergency room at 10 o’clock on a Friday night.”

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