Ryan Brown, a sixth grader at Three Oaks Middle School in Fort Myers, sits at an assigned table outside for his lunch period with two other students. The conversations he has during the short lunch hour each day are one of the few opportunities Brown has to socialize with his peers since the start of COVID-19.
Three Oaks is exploring challenging new ways to give young students the resources they need in order to thrive in the academic environment since implementing distance learning in March of this year and recently implementing options for in-person and hybrid classes.
"We always think of the student first, and lead with compassion and grace," said Kelley Hill, assistant principal of Three Oaks Elementary.
Three Oaks prioritizes safety above all else. Hill states learning can only happen once students are safe and feel comfortable physically and emotionally. Administrative staff at Three Oaks has worked to modify schedules to meet the needs of students and teachers.
Communication has been a key factor in dealing with the uncertainty of the pandemic, said Hill.
"We keep in very close contact with students, teachers, and parents as an administration and solve concerns with a positive attitude as they arise," said Hill. "We are all going slow to go fast."
Three Oaks plans activities to allow students to be social virtually, such as their "Bear of the Week" celebration done via Zoom, according to Hill. Classes at Three Oaks nominate one student per week who follows the school's "BEAR expectations" guidelines for students to succeed academically and socially. This activity highlights students who fulfill the "BEAR" acronym: Being respectful, Everybody matters, Appropriate activity, and Responsibility.
"We are doing everything we can to help students interact, even online," Hill said.
Brittany Junker, a psychologist at Serenity Counseling Center in Fort Myers who specializes in working with children ages 5-17, states that the lack of in-person social interaction can significantly impact the mental health of students.
"Children and teens tend to be expressive with their tones, body language, and words," Junker said. "Being limited to video and phone chats for social interaction can increase feelings of disconnect and loneliness."
As many students have begun interacting with their friends solely through the usage of phones and computers, Junker has seen an increase in depression and feelings of isolation among adolescents.
Laurie Wallace, school counselor at Three Oaks Elementary, states she also has seen the rise of feelings of isolation among students.
"Students spend more time on social media instead of being in person with friends. It creates isolation from the support systems that make for healthy individuals," Wallace said.
The feelings of isolation the pandemic has caused for children may cause a delay in developing social skills, Junker said. This includes the development of confidence, coping skills, and reading body language.
There has been an increase in separation anxiety among children ages six to nine since the start of COVID-19. Children have become more prone to shyness, are more cautious, and have lower tolerance for stimulation such as crowds, loud noises, or being out of the house for long periods of time, according to Junker.
"The close and constant contact with parents and guardians has seemingly interrupted the age-appropriate integration into society and people outside the home," Junker said.
Students at the elementary age, primarily ages six and seven, have important cognitive functions that are developing. Children learn empathy, have difficulty identifying and regulating new emotion, and begin to connect with their expanding world.
To aid students, Hill states that Three Oaks Elementary has been frequently revisiting schedules of students, finding ways to do intervention while social distancing, and finding ways to build community within the classroom and the school.
Wallace states the school tries to make learning fun to alleviate the anxiety students are feeling during the pandemic.
"We are doing all that we can to let kids be kids and have some fun away from their homes… We offer them a chance to talk to trusted adults who also care for them and their families," Wallace said.
Wallace has been working to connect with students through Zoom counselor meetings, morning news segments about character values, and SEL - social-emotional learning - activities over Google Classroom.
Three Oaks is a Positive Behavior Intervention School. PBIS schools focus on teaching positive behavior strategies. This promotes positive behavior to the school environment and improves school safety, according to PBIS.org.
"We are partners with families to provide social and emotional support to our students," Wallace said. "We offer them a safe place to be kids and learn as they normally would do."
Ryan Brown, a sixth grader at Three Oaks, states his experience with school since the beginning of COVID-19 has been especially difficult since he hasn't been able to socialize as he used to.
Wallace states there is a necessity for young students to socialize as much as they can with other students because it builds a foundation for their social skills as they mature.
"Children need the play time and interactions with other people to build a foundation for all their relationships in the future," Wallace said.
It is also difficult for students to relate to others with COVID-19 regulations hindering the ease of socializing, said Wallace. Students are unable to identify feelings on a Zoom call as they do in person. Masks covering facial expressions do not help the issue either.
"Human touch and facial expressions are missing this year and it's going to be a long-term effect," Wallace said.
Three Oaks Middle School requires all students to wear masks when inside the building and classrooms have clear plastic shields at the desks which add an additional layer of protection from COVID-19.
Brown states COVID-19 regulations have given a significant learning curve in the classroom.
"The desk shields make it a lot harder to know what the teacher is saying and she can't hear me as well," Brown said. "It makes it difficult to want to ask questions and participate in class if the teacher can't even hear me."
Brown has opted for face-to-face classes since the option opened in August of this year, but when schools closed down in March, Brown took all-online classes and his grades significantly lowered.
"It was a lot harder to focus," Brown said. "Just watching and listening to the teacher was difficult to pay attention to. I could just watch YouTube or play with my dogs, but instead I have to keep my camera on and stare at my computer screen until class is over."
Junker states she anticipates lack of empathy and attention span increasing among students because of a lack of in-person interaction.
"Students are feeling burnt out and complacent with online school, allowing their minds and attention to wander," Junker said.
It is difficult for Three Oaks to sufficiently be available for each student during this time as the counselor to student ratio is 1 to nearly 960.
"It's overwhelming on most days as I have to reach virtual students as well as face to face students… I never leave school until I have contacted anyone that has reached out to me for help," Wallace said.
The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor to every 250 students. Three Oaks is drastically underfunded for school counselors in elementary schools.
Families turn to Wallace frequently when in need, as she has been with Three Oaks Elementary School for over ten years. This helps her understand issues in the communities with more clarity as she has previously built relationships with many students and families, she said.
"The most important character trait in people who live a long time is resiliency," said Wallace. "I think it has been reinforced on a daily basis that I have to be flexible or my stress levels will go through the roof," Wallace said.
Brown states the school has been very flexible regarding difficulties students have faced because of COVID-19.
"My friend's brother passed away because of COVID-19," Brown said. "He took about a week off. The teachers excused him from most assignments when he was gone. They were really understanding about the whole situation."
Three Oaks has understood the need for flexibility with students and staff as they learn to adapt to new ways of learning as they work with COVID-19 regulations.
"[Helping students during the pandemic] is a work in progress, but we are working hard. We are taking each day and each challenge as it comes," said assistant principal Hill.