This is bigger than e-learning, part 2

Posted on August 20th, 2020

How The Pandemic Will Impact At-Risk Youth

Authors: Carey Haley Wong, Chief Legal Counsel at Child Advocates and Katherine Meger Kelsey, Director of the Children’s Law Center at Kids’ Voice of Indiana

In part 1 of this series, we spoke with children. As it happens, the kids we spoke to are mainly concerned about school. That’s fair, of course. School closures are the most visible impact on children during this pandemic.

There is a wonderful article published by the BBC titled “How Covid-19 is changing the world’s children,” by David Robson. In that article, Robson mentions that while a child’s “intellectual development may be the most obvious victim of these shutdowns, it’s by no means the only thing at risk.” In other words, this is bigger than e learning.

Our series now turns to a few experts who work with at-risk children. We reached out to Jamee Paoloemilio, MD, a pediatrician, Donna Walker, Director of the Education Liaison Program at Child Advocates and Cathy Cooley, MSW, LSW, Mental Health Therapist at Center for Hope and Family Solutions. Let’s hear their thoughts about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the children they serve.

How are you doing right now? What does an average day look like?

Jamee Paoloemilio: If it’s a work day, I go to work and come home. If I am off, I stay home. I only go out to pick up food, go for a walk, or take my kid to science camp. If my kid and I are at home, we just play. It’s a pretty boring life these days … My kid has unfortunately had to get used to it.

Donna Walker: The Educational Liaisons modified their support of students when school closed to make sure that we are providing the support needed for children to continue their educational virtually or at home education.  In an average day we would be contacting our care-givers and teams to check on the progress of the children that we support through email, phone calls, and within CFTMs. We are constantly monitoring the progress and needs that children have in order to respond in a timely way to educational needs.

Cathy Cooley: This pandemic has been rough on everyone that I love. I have a kiddo in pharmacy school who has been home since March. I have a Speech Pathology student home since March and a Business student home since March. I also have a high schooler who has been home since March. All of the Cooley kids will tell you that they have been e-doing, not e-learning!  My parents (79 y/o) have been locked up inside their house with me and my sister running their errands, getting them food, helping them with technology. Their mental acuity has dramatically decreased. For two months, I did all of my sessions via telehealth which was difficult at best, and not great for my clients. Everyone that I was supporting in the school systems is not being supported (except for Options students that I am still seeing via telehealth). Bottom line: I am exhausted! I served on the HSE task force to get these kids back to school (which I honestly believe will last about 3 weeks) and that made me realize just how out of control this situation is. There are so many variables. It is a great school system but quite frankly, no one can follow the CDC guidelines and open up the school to all students.

What are you seeing during COVID times that you did not see before?

Donna Walker: As children have moved from face-to-face instruction in schools to virtual or home learning, we have seen care-givers struggle with how to develop and maintain structures within the home that are conducive for instruction to occur and continue at home. We have seen more service providers also respond to that need and meetings on supporting the caregivers in this endeavor. We have more caregivers reaching out to us for suggestions and support.  As students are transitioning back to school in either face to face, virtual, or hybrid, we are helping the care-givers and team think of critical considerations when making the decisions facing them about education at the start of the school year.

Jamee Paoloemilio: It seems like child abuse, suicide attempts, and admits for mental health have increased. I don’t have the data to back this up, but I know that some groups are working on gathering data. It will be interesting to see the data in a few months to see if we have seen an increase in those admissions to the hospital.

Cathy Cooley: Lots of teens with depression and anxiety. Many of them self-medicating with alcohol and marijuana. The lack of control in their life has caused many of them to try to find something to control (weight, exercise). Many of them function higher at school than at home and this newfound lack of productivity is creating feelings of worthlessness and sadness. My black kiddos just have the extra anxiety about going back to school. It is heartbreaking to hear how they feel about white privilege. Some of them talk about “opening a can of worms” that they will have to navigate when they get back.

What are your biggest concerns right now regarding the children you work with or are responsible for?

Jamee Paoloemilio: I am worried about their mental health, food insecurity, and potentially dangerous home situations. Without school, they don’t have the opportunity to get all these services. Kids have not been supported with money or social services from the government. They are also at risk of losing their insurance because parents are losing insurance.

Cathy Cooley: My biggest concern is for the kiddos who NEED to be in school. Many kids need the classroom. Home is simply not a learning environment for them. I have had a brilliant student fail every class last semester, simply because there were no tests. She excels on tests; the turning in homework…not so much!

Donna Walker: Our biggest concerns for our students is the transition back to school as this presents another major life change.  We are developing plans for our children as decisions are being made about the mode of the educational options.  We are also concerned about academic and social regression. Students will need to be assessed regarding academic levels and be offered opportunities to relearn social standards for school participation.

In your line of work, what is the biggest need you see for kids?

Jamee Paoloemilio: Same as above. Many of the kids I see rely on services like food and therapy from the school. Without it, they can’t get that. Plus, with the pandemic, many people have lost their jobs and insurance. I am seeing kids come into the hospital who have run out of medications due to this loss and it’s hard for us to find ways for them to get their medicines which are often very expensive. WIC offices have closed here and people are having trouble getting appointment in a reasonable time and going without formula and supplemental food.

Cathy Cooley: I have been saying this to anyone who would listen for the last 15 years. We need to look at the needs of each child. It does not have to be fair, we just need to meet their needs. Students need easy access to mentors, mental health services and caring adults. For many of the kiddos that I see in schools, I and the teachers and staff are the only functioning adults in their lives!

Donna Walker: Educational support from all that touch the children is needed. We work hard to keep everyone (school staff, caregivers, students, teams) informed and in communication with each other. The sense of safety, both psychical and emotional, as well as a sense of belonging in school is critical to meaningful and improved school outcomes for our children.  Communication and relationships are critical.

What could (schools, attorneys/courts, doc offices, etc.) do differently if we ever see a situation like this again? 

Jamee Paoloemilio: My first thought is to advocate for social services to continue at the local, state and national level. I think those need to be expanded and continued. Also, using an attorney’s knowledge to stop evictions from occurring in court so that people do not lose out on housing.

Cathy Cooley: In my opinion, we should ask the teachers what should have been done differently. I think that school counselors should have reached out to every family on their case list over the summer. There should be crisis help available to these kiddos even if we are not in school! I have had five students go to inpatient facilities this summer—that number matches the totality of my entire career! You cannot find a bed on an adolescent behavioral health unit. I want all parents to pay closer attention to their kids (I know I have). This has been hard on EVERYONE. Antidepressant sales are off the charts. The fallout on the mental health of our teens will be felt for years!

Donna Walker: Respond to change in a calm and confident manner relating that even though things may be different, we can figure this out and it can be positive as we work together. Listen to the child and respond to where the child is developmentally and mediate to help the child to develop positive cognitive, emotional, and social skills to adjust and move forward. Communication and relationships are critical.