#cyberbullying | #cyberbully | Mental health experts predict emotional challenges as CNY schools reopen

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Central New York schools’ reopening plans may pose mental health challenges to students and educators, according to mental health professionals and teachers.

Schools in Onondaga County are reopening with remote, in-person or hybrid instruction models. Components of the reopening plans –– such as the increase in screen time and the decrease in social interaction and physical activity –– can impact the mental health of students and teachers, mental health professionals said.

Students and teachers may also struggle with the transition to an unfamiliar learning environment.

Joseph Bennett is a science teacher at Nottingham High School in the Syracuse City School District, which is teaching classes online through at least Oct. 2. His coworkers have experienced a lot of anxiety and frustration while preparing for the start of online classes, he said.

Instead of copying worksheets and taping posters to their classroom walls like they’re used to, teachers at the high school are attending professional development seminars to learn how to use remote learning applications, he said.

“I’m worried about making connections with my students face-to-face,” Bennett said. “That was one of my biggest strengths. That was how I was able to get them to learn a lot better, I think. They build a relationship with you and they trust you, so they care about learning.”

Many teachers in the area are dealing with the stress of an uncertain job environment and an inability to control the logistics of their classrooms, said Amy Molloy, project director of the School Mental Health Resource and Training Center at the Mental Health Association in New York State.

Bennett’s also afraid for students and families who are going through financial hardship as a result of the pandemic. Financial difficulties and lack of access to technology could pose an obstacle for some students this semester, he said.

“In March, when we were doing remote learning, we were hearing a lot about students’ parents losing their jobs,” Bennett said. “Then they would lose their phones or internet connection, so that made it harder to contact parents or check in on students to make sure they were doing well mentally.”

Parents and educators marched to SCSD’s offices on Monday, the first day of classes in the district, to demand more information about how SCSD plans to provide students with the resources they need for online learning.

Students’ access to quality online education is not equal, Bennett said. While students who attend schools in Syracuse’s suburbs may have access to robust technology that supports remote and hybrid learning, those who go to school in the city or in rural towns may struggle to grasp new material and connect with teachers, he said.

New York state mandates that students receive 1,200 minutes of lab time for science classes, even if students are learning online. Bennett will implement virtual physics labs for students to observe, but he’s not sure if they’ll be effective.

At Fayetteville-Manlius High School, students attending in-person will meet in smaller classes. The Fayetteville-Manlius School District began remote learning Sept. 10 and moved to hybrid and remote learning options the following day.

The hybrid model will foster a greater connection between students and teachers, said Sheila Coughlin, a social worker and home-school liaison at the school.

“As teachers and educators, we’re trying to keep everyone engaged in-person and keep them connected online,” she said. “Education is about relationships and that personal connection.”

But in-person classes may not make up for all the social opportunities students have lost this year. Sports and other after-school activities usually provide students with an outlet to relieve stress and socialize with their peers, but with the pandemic putting many of those activities on hold, students and staff may feel increasingly isolated, Coughlin said.

A majority of students will have to connect with their peers virtually or through social media, Molloy said. Students entering new schools are more likely to feel excluded when participating in online courses with new teachers, she said.

Organizations dedicated to mental health are also concerned that the increased amount of time that students are spending online could increase cyberbullying, Molloy said.

“A student who was at risk for cyberbullying before may now be at more risk,” she said. “We’ve always known it to be a problem, but now we have elevated the amount of screentime that students are having.”

Many teachers feel anxious about not being able to check up on students, especially those who may lack a stable learning environment at home, Molloy said.

“Having lost those opportunities to have those daily connections and check-ins with students they’re worried about,” Molloy said. “That weighs emotionally on teachers.”

Contact Richard: rjchang@syr.edu | @RichardJChang1

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