Part Three – Children of the Pandemic
I met with a teacher from Edmonton Public Schools in October 2021. Much of what teachers say publicly is supposed to be filtered through official communication channels. I asked several teachers for an interview, but none were willing to talk with me. After several months of attempting to connect with a teacher, I found one who agreed to be interviewed under the condition of anonymity.
A three hour interview with Ashley Miller resulted in 40 pages of dialogue. To best convey the important threads of the teaching and student experience during the pandemic, this interview has been broken into three parts: Trickle Down Politics, Online Teaching and Other Learnings, and Children of the Pandemic.
Children’s mental health became a prominent topic for adults during the Covid pandemic.
The UCP government weighed the mental health of children over their physical health. They attributed student’s mental health issues to the difficulty of online learning and masks.
Miller said that it’s not that simple.
“I have many students who have mental health challenges. Even though being online was hard for a lot of reasons—self-motivation and that lack of accountability—being in person is hard because of the anxiety around being in person.”
She continued, “I have students who can’t take a bus anymore. They had panic attacks about being on a bus, whether that’s ETS or the yellow school bus. I have students for whom a classroom feels too crowded.”
The Covid pandemic brought youths’ mental health issues into focus for adults. With students and their parents being home together for extended periods during the school shutdowns, many parents saw their children’s challenges play out over the course of days and weeks for the first time. Miller said, “a staggering amount” of parents just didn’t notice their children’s mental health issues “or at the very least, did not know that their child’s actions are a mental health issue” (rather than laziness or some other perceived character flaw).
Miller explained, “I have a parent that I’m dealing with right now [who] still isn’t quite acknowledging what’s happening with their child. They said, ‘I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t know how to get them out of bed.’” Miller said, “You need to take them to a therapist. And not just once.”
“With students and their parents being home together for extended periods during the school shutdowns, many parents saw their children’s challenges play out over the course of days and weeks for the first time. Miller said, “a staggering amount” of parents just didn’t notice their children’s mental health issues “or at the very least, did not know that their child’s actions are a mental health issue” (rather than laziness or some other perceived character flaw).”
Miller continued, “I’ve seen amazing parents and I see really shitty parents as a teacher, and it’s difficult to watch kids go through that.”
For many children, mental health problems are a result of structural inequities. “Last year, I think one of the things that were the hardest to watch is how many children were trying to protect their parents.”
“Students now—not only are their lives more complicated and they know that the world is on fire, but they’re also much more aware of their parents as human beings.” Some of Miller’s students would say things like, “I don’t want this to be a problem. I don’t want you to tell my parents that the Internet’s not working because I don’t want to bother them. They’re too stressed already. I can’t come to class because I have to help my younger sibling be in class because my parents are at work.”
Miller further illustrated this point. “I have a student who has a sibling who is autistic and needs constant supervision, constant care, and their school was closed. So my student’s full-time job became taking care of their younger sibling. They wouldn’t come to class. They would log in sometimes and listen, but definitely couldn’t participate or couldn’t have their camera on because they were basically trying to prevent their siblings from being harmed during the day.”
Miller continued: “Then they were trying to do their own work at night when their parents were asleep so that [the parents wouldn’t know] how stressful it was. It was just a mess. It was a mess to watch.”
There is societal dissonance between knowing children need mental health support and the lack of access they actually have.
“[Students] are trying to be more present and authentic, which is really positive but also really difficult. We’re giving young people so much more emotional responsibility and not making any space for it. We’re still giving them all the responsibilities with homework and with after school activities, and yet [not giving] them time to process any of this.”
Prior to the pandemic, some social work services were provided through the Student Resource Officer (SRO) program. Miller said, “I do think that getting police out of schools was the right call.” She pointed out, “The SROs that were really effective in schools were the ones that were really taking on the roles of social services, not the ones that were doing punitive things.”
Despite the fact that removing the SROs in September 2020 resulted in a cost savings of $1,219,246, they were not replaced with less expensive social workers. “Where’s the support?”
Miller said, “The SRO program was removed, and let’s be clear, it should have been. Students were being unwarrantedly harassed and intimidated—not everywhere—it’s never blanket. But that program is flawed and it needs to be changed. However, what do we do now?”
Miller’s time and workload crunch prevents her and her colleagues from adequately looking after their student’s mental health, without assistance. She said, “I have so many students who I was worried about before. They were on our list. We have our list of students that we check in on and watch out for.”
Miller said, “I have 150 students this semester. I try to do this once a week: I go through every student in my classes, and I think, ‘What do they need?’ And then I try to do it. Is it that they have low attendance and I need to contact home and maybe loop in an administrator? Is that they’re having a mental health problem and I need to get in touch with the counsellor? Is it that they are showing that maybe they have a cognitive concern and I need to get them on the list to be assessed? Is it that I just didn’t talk to them enough this week? Then I need to check in with myself and ask, ‘How can I see that kid better next week?’”
Despite the obvious care that Miller has for her students, she cannot do the work alone. “We’re [the system] just really bad at that next part. It’s truth and reconciliation. These are two step things. We’re really good at step one, but we suck at step two. I’m really good at saying, ‘Hey, this student seems like they need extra help’ and everyone else agrees, “and then we all stand around.”
“There’s only so much you can do from a teacher position and there’s what you can do from a counsellor position,” Miller explained. If the student needs social services, there are not clear guidelines on who should be the person who makes that call. “Whose job is that? How do you respect people’s privacy? There’s lots of layers.”
Miller expressed her frustration. “There are systems in place, and once again, with systems there is gatekeeping and red tape. You can have a kiddo that you flagged for five years and nothing has happened for them.”
She said, “These kids are just so angry. Of course they’re angry. Of course they’re flipping out. Of course they’re having difficulty emotionally regulating. They’re pissed off? Aren’t you? If you’re not angry right now, you’re not paying attention.”
Masking: physically and metaphorically
The gaps between what parents believe and what their children believe reflects the wider society’s divergent viewpoints. “I think that our new reality as a society is polarization.” Miller said she believes a calm expression of public opinion is a thing of the past. “I think that those days are over. [The concept of] ‘why can’t we just all get along’ is no longer a thing.”
Miller explained how politics in Alberta played out in school. She said, “Last year [2020-2021], kids were kept at home for a variety of reasons, some for medical concerns or health unknowns or simply because it was easier. For some, it was because [the parents] don’t want their kids wearing masks.”
She explained, “This year [2021-2022] masks weren’t mandatory in the province, but we made them mandatory in the schools. There were parents who had issues with that. What we found is the parents and the kids disagreeing—the kids being totally OK with wearing a mask and the parents not being OK. We have students who were ‘mask exempt’ because their parents fought really hard, but they wear a mask in school and they don’t want their parents to know.”
(In 2022, the Alberta Government banned masks in schools.)
“What we found is the parents and the kids disagreeing—the kids being totally OK with wearing a mask and the parents not being OK. We have students who were ‘mask exempt’ because their parents fought really hard, but they wear a mask in school and they don’t want their parents to know.”
Miller expected this to play out with vaccination as well. “We’re having a vaccination clinic in school. They do need to have parental consent to get those vaccines, but I’m sure kids are gonna lie about it.”
She said, “This is happening all over the place, not just our school. There’s this dissonance between the values of parents and students. It’s so interesting when you hear adults talking about what they think are best for children, and the youth are not given a space to talk about what’s best for them themselves.”
“We all have disagreements with our parents. But to think that you would have a disagreement with your parents like, ‘I want to go to school, but you won’t let me because I have to do something that makes it safer for everyone’ [i.e. wear a mask]. What a strange concept.”
The future of children of the pandemic
The first pandemic in 100 years has prompted societal as well as personal reflection on what we want the world to look like going forward. Miller said, “I think to myself, if there’s anything out of this that I’m learning that I want to bring into the classroom, it is to have students ask themselves ‘why’. Even in the context of my course, if you’re saying to yourself, ‘I hate this’, then what’s your next step so that you either don’t hate this anymore or never have to do it again?”
Miller stated, “If there’s anything I want students of the pandemic to learn it is, ‘Why and how do we fix it?’” She gave an example. “Why are you having a panic attack when you get on the bus? How do we fix it?”
The origins and current structure of public school are so different from the reality of children in the 2020s. “The school structure came out of industrialism, with that desire for workers and labourers. That is no longer what a school is.”
Miller gave a fascinating example of how different the world is for young people, and why it is important to teach adaptability more than specific skills. One day, Miller took a phone call in her classroom and had a short conversation with the caller. When she hung up, the students expressed their admiration for how she communicated on the phone. The kids said, ‘Ms. Miller, that just felt so natural.’ I thought, ‘What a bizarre thing to say.’”
She continued, “We started talking about how they don’t know how to talk to people. They’re getting jobs and they don’t know how to answer the phone at their jobs.” With the ubiquitous use of cell phones, children now do not know how to talk on the phone.
“They text or if they do talk on their phones, it is often in a group chat or to their family where talking in shorthand is acceptable. But they have no experience in phone conversations with people they don’t know.”
“We should figure out how to help,” Miller said.
Miller shared her hope for the future of education. “A school is a community building. In fact, schools are much closer to [fulfilling the role of] churches right now. It’s about community programming. It’s recreation. It’s mental health. It’s hobbies. It’s well-roundedness. We need to serve our community better.”
“We’ve been taught that our time is only valuable if there is a monetary attachment,” said Miller. “I’ve heard my colleagues and my friends say things like, ‘How is that going to help you when you get out into the working world?’”
Miller responded. “Who cares? I want to know how it’s going to help you be a person. I guess that’s part of my leftist agenda.” She laughed at this buzzword. “But if we can’t take care of each other, we have nothing to live for.”