Letter: The importance of getting our kids back to school
As a mental health care provider in this community, I have had the unique opportunity to see how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected both students and parents. This valley has spent a great amount of time recognizing the mental health needs of our community and it is my hope that the Eagle County Board of Education takes this into account while making final decisions about the upcoming 2020/2021 school year.
What are the social implications of reducing face-to-face time in schools? Younger children learn to develop social skills during school that are important for their future well-being. This includes practicing the art of compromising, relationship building and practicing effective communication. These skills are essential in developing self-assurance, confidence and resiliency.
Without such skills, children are at greater risk for mental health compromise and failure in future life challenges. For many adolescents, COVID-19 has brought about loneliness, fear and powerlessness. As adolescents are developing, it is crucial for them to feel a sense of being and to have some control within their daily living. Limiting adolescents from social interactions (including sports) is likely to have detrimental effects to their self-efficacy (a strong protective factor to hinder developing mental health conditions). The two teenage suicides this summer in Summit County were devastating for their community. It is evident that adolescents are in troubling times and social isolation is one of the greatest risk factors for mental instability and suicide.
With COVID-19, many parents have been placed into situations where they are either unemployed or underemployed. For these parents, many are struggling themselves with financial and emotional stressors. Having children in their households full-time has added more troubling dynamics. I have treated parents who are drinking excessively, battling depressive episodes and often fighting both verbally and physically with their spouses and/or children.
It is important to remember that schools are a safe haven for many children and that their home environments are not always nurturing and/or the right breeding grounds for encouraging social and emotional development. For the parents that are fully employed, having children at home causes other burdens, such as sibling rivalry and educational needs that a full time employed parent of a young child cannot meet. These parents are often left feeling guilty and shameful for their inability to provide their children with adequate educational support.
As both a family nurse practitioner and psychiatric nurse practitioner, I recognize the importance of both physical and emotional needs. I understand the desire to value physical health needs, however, I would encourage the Eagle County Board of Education to think about the long-term mental health effects of restricting face-to-face school time. Though I am confident that Eagle County teachers can provide an effective hybrid learning environment, I am cautious about the detrimental mental health effects of such. Please consider allowing our children to thrive in the physical environment of schools that not only fosters education but teaches and promotes mental health wellness.
Dr. Kris Vandenberg-Harrison