It's important to practice "self-care" as the new coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread and forces adjustments to daily life, with anxiety levels rising along with the number of infections, says Tracie Hogan Simmons, lead social worker and counselor for Whitfield County Schools.
"Life has changed for all of us, and we're in new territory, territory we've never been in before," she said Monday during a meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Dalton at the Dalton Convention Center. "We're building the plane as we're flying it, and I'm sure many of you feel the same way."
There's "lots of anxiety" among students and staff, especially regarding virtual learning, she said. Some students who opted for total online education this year have fallen behind and "given up," not to mention coping with the isolation of not physically being with classmates, while staff members have stretched to meet the needs of those students academically, as well as socially/emotionally.
"It's a challenge with our virtual students," she said. "We've had to rewrite the script, because our normal is gone."
Some virtual students who already had meaningful connections to counselors, social workers and/or teachers have reached out to them when feeling uneasy, but those who didn't have those relationships are more likely to slip through the cracks, which is why educators are contacting those students and their families daily if warranted, she said. If phone calls, emails and texts prove fruitless, "we go visit them personally."
Roughly 30% of Whitfield County Schools’ approximately 13,000 students opted for virtual learning to open this academic year, but many have returned to in-person learning throughout the fall. Still, more than 1,000 remained totally digital, as of early this month.
Most elementary schools are down to the teens or 20s as far as the number of virtual learners, Karey Williams, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in Whitfield County Schools, explained earlier this month. In middle schools, 269 students remain virtual, and at the high school level, 663 remain virtual.
"It's not easy to get through online classes," Williams said. "We're trying to give (the content) out in small bites so they don't get overwhelmed."
Educators need to practice self-care, too, so they can support their students, Simmons said.
"If we're not taking care of ourselves, we can't lead others in a positive way."
Students — online or in the classroom — bring "outside noise" with them to their learning, be it domestic violence in their home, COVID-19 illnesses or deaths among their relatives, lost jobs for parents due to the pandemic's impact on the economy or food and/or housing insecurity, she said. "Life goes on outside" of the boundaries of school.
From the middle of March, when the pandemic forced many schools in the country to shift to online learning, to October, the percentage of emergency room visits related to mental health rose dramatically for school-aged children and adolescents compared to the previous year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The number of emergency department visits related to mental health increased almost 25% for children aged 5-11 from March-October, compared to the same period in 2019, while the number of visits for those aged 12-17 jumped more than 30%.
Additionally, those figures "likely underestimate the actual number of mental health-related health care visits because many mental health visits occur outside" of emergency departments, according to the CDC. "Children’s mental health during public health emergencies can have both short- and long-term consequences to their overall health and well-being."
"We see a lot of kids who don't know how to self-regulate their emotions," Simmons said. "They're not in the middle," but flipping from one extreme mood to another.
When faced with stress, a natural reaction for many people is to "fight," so it's worth remembering that sometimes "people react with anger that has nothing to do with you," she said. "You just happened to be there."
Others default to a "flight" mentality, growing depressed and/or withdrawn, while others can become "immobilized, frozen, stuck," she said. When feeling overwhelmed, "go into that place that makes you happy, wherever that is."
The number of adults experiencing depression has tripled in the United States since the COVID-19 outbreak began, according to a study from JAMA Network Open, the monthly open access medical journal published by the American Medical Association. More than one in four adults reported symptoms of depression in the survey.
It's critical to be "realistic — and gentle — with yourself and others," Simmons said. "We're good at being compassionate to others, but not always to ourselves."
Physical and mental breaks can also be valuable coping mechanisms, as can finding ways to laugh, she said.
"You've got to find the humor in things: it's survival, not cynical."
"Approach interactions with openness, rather than defensiveness, (and) find three things that relieve stress for you, then do them consistently," she advised. Furthermore, "go back to what you're grateful for, because there are always things" for which to be grateful.
"Be self-aware of thoughts, feelings and emotions," including reflecting upon the impact of others on mood, as emotions can be "contagious," she said. "Do you feel a lot better after you've been around some people, and (much) worse when you've been around others?"
Setting boundaries is crucial, as "sometimes we need to be alone for a moment," she said.
Finally, "we need to reach out when in need, (as) there are helpers everywhere."