COLUMBUS, Ohio — When 16-year-old Sydney Bleyle envisions the upcoming school year, she's hopeful for a volleyball season, classes shared with friends and her teachers providing helpful guidance in three challenging Advanced Placement courses.
After the coronavirus abruptly shuttered school buildings this spring, sending students home to learn online, the rising junior at Bradley High School in Hilliard said she's looking forward to any in-person experiences.
"That's something I've really missed the past couple of months, something I've definitely struggled with," Bleyle told The Dispatch on Monday afternoon. "If we went back to only e-learning, I would be devastated."
Just hours later, the Hilliard school board agreed to do just that if Franklin County's number of COVID-19 infections doesn't decrease greatly by Aug. 10. Previously, the district had announced plans for a hybrid of in-person and online learning.
As the format of the 2020-21 school year continues to hang in the balance, central Ohio school psychologists and counselors are preparing for an influx of students who will need their support due to the ongoing pandemic.
A survey of nearly 700 parents by Nationwide Children's Hospital, released Wednesday, found that 40% were concerned about their children's social and emotional well-being as the school year looms. About half said "too many unknowns" were a concern.
A spring survey of 3,300 teens by America's Promise Alliance, a Washington, D.C., organization that aims to improve the lives of young people, found nearly one-third of students were losing more sleep, feeling more unhappy or depressed, feeling constant strain or losing confidence in themselves. All are indicators of cognitive and emotional health.
Even if students return to a school building this fall, their experience may not match their expectations, said Jennifer Glenn, a psychologist for Columbus City Schools.
"Children aren't meant to be kept 6 feet away from each other. Teachers don't want to have to not hug their kids," Glenn said. "Schools aren't supposed to operate as a sterile, clinical setting. What's necessary for their physical safety is going to be at the cost of their social and emotional safety. That's why it's so hard. It's a no-win situation."
Columbus City Schools officials announced Tuesday that buildings won't reopen to start the 2020-21 school year, and students will again learn remotely online.
Glenn works at Trevitt Elementary School and at the district's pair of college preparatory middle schools, one for boys and one for girls.
Some of her students might be grieving the loss of everyday routines or life's milestones, while others could be mourning a loved one killed by COVID-19, she said. Others may experience poverty and food insecurity.
"We've all gone through this pandemic differently, but nobody is coming out unscathed," Glenn said.
'We're all still going through this'
Samanta Boddapati, a child clinical psychologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital, said schools must be prepared to support all students, while layering on extra assistance for students with significant needs.
The state's reopening guidelines for schools also recommends this, noting that "educators, children and families may experience stress, confusion, fear, anger, sadness or anxiety during the return to school. As a result, students may display increased negative and disruptive behaviors."
Some children may just need time to adjust, Boddapati said. Parents can help by establishing routines, discussing feelings and organizing activities that make the child feel good, such as a hobby or exercise.
But if a child's daily functioning is significantly impacted, parents may want to seek help from a pediatrician or a school's staff.
"Ultimately, parents really know their children best," Boddapati said. "We're all still going through this pandemic, children included."
Scott Koebel, a counselor at Newark High School, said it may be tempting for educators to immediately focus on all of the academic content missed during the spring shutdown, but that approach may be counterproductive.
"Students are going to need the time and space to process a lot of feelings," Koebel said. "We really need to make sure we're meeting those needs at the start of the school year, otherwise, they're not going to be ready to learn."
Finding the positive
Molly Walker, the Hilliard school district's director of social and emotional learning and measurement, said the district is committed to giving teachers time to check in with students and build relationships — which is key to making online learning work, she said.
In the spring, some teachers continued classroom traditions virtually, such as sharing "roses and thorns," which are positives and negatives students are experiencing, she said.
"When you take away the building from education, relationships are all you have left," Walker said. "If you can find a positive in this, while everything else is total chaos, it's that it's recalibrated our focus on what's really important."