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Two years after COVID school closures, one counselor says students are still feeling the impact

 kids walking in front of school  bus
WLRN / Miami Herald
Counselors say the isolation and disruption brought on by the pandemic has had a lasting impact on kids' mental health. Two years after Florida schools closed their doors, some students are still struggling to adjust.

Kids were already facing a mental health crisis before the pandemic. Closing schools for a year only made it worse, says Rachel Kusher of the Florida School Counselor Association. And reopening hasn’t fixed all the harm.

When Florida schools sent students home in March 2020, administrators didn’t know how long the closures would end up lasting or how intensely the shutdown would affect kids.

Initially the hiatus was supposed to last two weeks — an extended spring break. But students didn't go back to their classrooms for the rest of that school year because of the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

The disruption and isolation have been unlike anything most children ever experienced. One school counselor says the impact on students’ mental health remains significant.

Rachel Kusher is a counseling specialist with Broward County Public Schools. She spoke to WLRN in her role as a board member of the Florida School Counselor Association.

“Whether they were high school or middle school, elementary [students], they were feeling a huge disconnect and closeness to not just peers, but anyone outside of their immediate family for such a long time,” Kusher said. “They were feeling this sense of, 'I no longer have my friend sitting next to me. I can only see them through a computer screen.' ”

Kids were already facing a mental health crisis before COVID, according to the U.S. surgeon general. The pandemic only made it worse.

Long before the coronavirus spread, too many students were living in poverty, experiencing homelessness or suffering from abuse. Over the past two years, the pandemic pushed many families closer to their breaking points. Kids watched their parents lose their jobs, get evicted from their homes and mourned the deaths of family members and friends.

According to a health advisory from the surgeon general on protecting youth mental health, societal and family factors put some kids at greater risk. These include LGBTQ younths who may have been confined to homes where they weren’t accepted, and Black children, who have been more likely to lose a parent or caregiver to COVID-related deaths.

Like counselors across the country, Kusher said she’s seeing more students with anxiety and depression since the pandemic began.

“There's definitely higher rates,” Kusher said. “And again, I think that goes back to the fact that so many kids were not in school for so long.”

Simply reopening schools hasn’t fixed all the harm students have experienced. Many continue to struggle with being back in the classroom.

COVID hasn’t just disrupted learning. Kusher said it has disrupted emotional and behavioral development, too.

“The current 10th-graders are really still in that eighth-grade mindset — before this year, the last time they stepped foot in a school was March of eighth grade. And now they're in high school, in 10th grade, only a couple years away from graduating,” Kusher said. “And I think the same rings true for middle school students.”

Kusher said part of the role of school counselors is to help teachers, administrators and parents see the full picture of what students are going through and to connect them to services like mental health providers or social workers.

But, she said, there aren’t nearly enough counselors to go around as schools across the country struggle to meet the growing needs of students.

“No, I don't think there are enough. Just like there's a teacher shortage, I think there's a shortage of school counselors. There's a shortage of mental health practitioners in schools,” Kusher said. “I don't think it's for lack of trying to hire and recruit and get people in there. I just think there's not enough people out there to really service the students at this time.”