When Back to School Spells Anxiety

Mount Sinai’s Rachel Colon, LCSW, on learning (and socializing) during the pandemic

| 12 Aug 2021 | 02:40

This fall, in-person learning at New York City’s public schools will become the only option forward, more than a year after the adoption of online classes and studying from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. What may seem like a return to normal, however, is shaping up to be daunting for some young students, according to Rachel Colon, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) at Mount Sinai’s Adolescent Health Center.

During the pandemic, the Adolescent Health Center remained open for in-person care while also offering telehealth services. Colon, who primarily works with patients ages 10 through 26, saw a general increase in demand for mental health care also reflected in her own caseload, which rose from 10 to more than 20 patients in the past year.

Some kids have grappled with a sense of lost agency and privacy while completing classes from home; others are dreading the uncertainty of the year ahead. Still, there are ways to ease the impending transition.

How has COVID-19 impacted adolescents’ mindsets over the past year?

In general, COVID has definitely taken a toll on young people’s autonomy, I would say, as well as just emotionally, in terms of increased symptoms of depression, increased symptoms of anxiety.

There were young people who, prior to the pandemic, were already struggling with social anxiety. And so, once COVID hit — and they no longer had to integrate themselves into social settings — it was kind of like a person with social anxiety’s paradise, because they’re like, Great, I don’t have to do this anymore. Needless to say, that’s not a good thing. We want a young person, of course, to get better and be able to resolve their social anxiety.

The young people who did not suffer from anxiety at some point now did. Hearing about having to reintegrate into possibly a hybrid situation, of course there was this obvious fear of exposure [to COVID-19]. I had one young person tell me, “You know, I went back into school and everybody just looks so different.” Young people change. And so if everyone’s already anxious and wearing masks and you approach someone, you don’t know whether they’re smiling or frowning or serious. There’s this whole new way of having to socialize now.

What unique challenges has online learning posed?

Before, home was kind of like my space to unwind. Now I have to invite school into my space. And if a young person was in an environment where no one knew really what was going on in their home, but they showed up to school and everything was fine and dandy ... it’s kind of like, Oh, now I’m being exposed, right, because you had to have your cameras on.

You also feel like you’re performing; you can’t really build relationships through a computer. It lacks that human connection, which a lot of our young people are struggling with, as well as the lack of independence. Because when you’re in middle school and high school, sometimes young people are traveling on their own and that sense of autonomy has been taken from them.

What do you think awaits school-aged kids as they return to the classroom this fall?

I think that there’s this new anxiety of having to go in person, reintegrate themselves into what that routine will look like.

Everyone’s experience is different. And so I think it’s really important for the school personnel to be more communicative, to be more flexible and understanding. And then also just being very mindful about the fact that at any point — depending upon what’s going on with this Delta variant, who knows what’s going to happen, right — things can shut down again. It’s important to honor the fact that we don’t know.

How do you work through some of those anxieties with your patients?

We talk a lot about, What are some of the things that you can control within your own environment, within yourself? You can control what time you wake up in the morning, you can control what you eat, you can control what you’re going to wear.

We also talk a lot about friendships. Who are the friends that you still have maintained contact with? Who are the people that you know are going to the same school? Can you reach out to them? I think that remote learning is tough; in-person learning is tough. And I think we just need, as adults, to really rally around our young people to figure out how to best support them.

Could there be any positive longer-term outcomes from this unusual period?

This is a time where children are developing a lot of resiliency and they’ve learned different ways to cope with this pandemic and this climate.

It’s important for them to know that they are not alone.

Tips for parents and caregivers, from Rachel Colon:
Talk with young people; ask how they’re feeling about the return to in-person learning and discuss how you can support them.
Do a test drive of the commute to school together before students have to return, so that they can familiarize themselves with the route and the surrounding area.
Communicate with schools to learn more about the logistics for the year ahead and explore any programs designed to welcome students back, like online events or new initiatives.
Acknowledge your own feelings during the pandemic — and take care of yourself — so that you can be there for others.