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The Pandemic’s Negative Impacts Continue to Affect Students

Mental health issues are at crisis levels all over the country as students readjust to in-person learning. Administrators are grappling with a rise in physical altercations and other behavioral issues.

Students fighting at school.
(TNS) — School was back in session in person in 2022, but the effects of long-term remote learning and the pandemonium caused by the pandemic remained clearly evident in young people's struggles.

Mental health issues are at crisis levels all over the country, and the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire are not exempt. When young students returned to full-time, in-person learning at public schools in the fall of 2021, the emotional stresses that came from a year and a half of hybrid or remote learning quickly began to play themselves out.

"We've seen an uptick in behaviors, sometimes bizarre behaviors, with everything going on," said Rick Gorman, director of the North Andover Youth Center, where middle- and high-school students gather every day after classes.

Such "bizarre behaviors" throughout the region over the past year would include a rash of fights that broke out last November at Lawrence High School, one of which resulted in a student assaulting a teacher who was trying to intervene.

There was also a sexual harassment complaint that surfaced last fall at the K-8 Hunking School in Haverhill, and a student was stabbed at Methuen High School in May.

And that list also should include the recent hazing involving the Haverhill High School football team, which Mayor James Fiorentini described as "disgusting" and resulted in cancellation of the team's entire schedule.

Gorman's comments about student behavior were addressed to North Andover's Select Board last summer, when he was seeking to hire a full-time social worker for two years to add some expertise to his Youth Center staff.

"I think that you're seeing a lot more anxiety with kids, for a variety of reasons," he said later in an interview with The Eagle-Tribune. "I think you're seeing a lot more kids depressed."

He also said that as much as people would like to put the pandemic behind them, its impacts on youth are proving to be lasting.

"I just think we're going to be into this haul for a little bit," he said. "Last year was 2021. We were supposedly out of the pandemic to a certain degree. It was our most challenging year here behavior-wise."


Nationwide evidence for the depression and anxiety that Gorman referenced was provided by an Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the spring.

The report concluded that the pandemic "has had a seismic effect on communities," and especially on young people. And, the report states, more than one in three high-school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic.

Disruption of routines and isolation from peers were the major culprits cited, but these were often accompanied by impacts from family economics, hunger, and abuse in the home, according to the report.

While pre-teen and teenage years are always tumultuous, filled with "hormonal and self-esteem issues," there was already "a heightened mental health crisis in young people" before the pandemic, said Lisa Fabbri-Lopez, an assistant professor of Human Services at Northern Essex Community College.

Her judgment is underlined by information published last month by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which states that the number of children ages 3 to 17 years old who were diagnosed with anxiety was said to have grown by 29% between 2016 and 2020, while the number with depression grew by 27%.

They also cited CDC data showing that suicide was the leading cause of death for young people aged 10 to 14, and those age 25 to 34 in 2020, and was among the top nine leading causes of death for people aged 10 to 64.

Fabbri-Lopez said insufficient support at home due to the breakdown of family structures was an important factor in this situation, which was exacerbated by understaffing in schools.

"Just the demands put on the families with the costs associated, and you have the schools getting overwhelmed with numbers and lack of staffing and pay not getting any better," she said.

Fabbri-Lopez also said there are statistics showing that many parents now raising children are older than in the past, and have trouble navigating the technology that occupies so much of their children's lives.

"So now you throw a pandemic on top of this," she said. "We already had these young people struggling, now you have the families that were barely intact as supports for these young people falling apart because they were losing jobs that they may have had."

Fabbri-Lopez also works as a therapist in Lawrence for Vinfen Corporation, a health and human services organization, and before that conducted emergency psychiatric evaluations and directed a crisis stabilization unit for Lahey Health.

"I have colleagues that still work with the young population, and I've heard of 6-year-olds with suicidal thoughts," she said. "When I worked as director, it would be very rare you would get something like that. Are they mimicking things they are hearing with their families?"

Fabbri-Lopez said that before the pandemic, schools had increased the numbers of staff members with the training to address these behaviors, but some of those jobs had been cut since the pandemic started.


Where Gorman and Fabbri-Lopez both focused on the emotional well-being of students in their observations, a study of academic performance that was released in September by the National Assessment of Educational Progress told a dire tale about the pandemic's impact on learning.

They found that fourth-grade math scores had decreased by the largest amount since 2005, and that eighth-grade math scores were lower than "all previous assessment years going back to 2003." Reading scores suffered a similar fate, contributing to a pandemic-related effect that was dubbed "learning loss."

The federal government made funds available so school systems could address this situation, but the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board said that many school districts had spent less than 5% of the funds available to them, which will expire in 2024. Others had squandered funds in the absence of clear benchmarks as to how the money should be spent.

North Andover Superintendent Dr. Gregg Gilligan acknowledged the pandemic's impact on student learning, and said they had attempted to "recover" what had been lost during the pandemic by hiring classroom teachers, special educators, and English language learner teachers, along with counselors, literacy and math interventionists, and a school psychologist, among others.

"Not surprisingly, we have and we will continue to face pandemic related challenges," he said. "However, the comprehensive recovery services plan that our educators and administrators developed and implemented has been a critical step in addressing and mitigating pandemic-related learning gaps."

©2023 The Eagle-Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.