Experts say loneliness and anxiety issues will be common for students returning to school

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Thursday, August 19, 2021
Experts say some kids coming back to school with anxiety issues
After 18 months away from school campuses, children missed critical development in social skills, experts say. And for some it's causing anxiety.

FREMONT, Calif. (KGO) -- School and specifically in-person learning is underway and in full swing for many children in the Bay Area.

The pandemic has had quite the impact on all of us, but kids are dealing with their own challenges after 18 months with either no in-person learning or limited in-person learning.

"I'm nervous but I'm excited to see a new teacher," says 7-year-old Alicea Leyva of Fremont. The 3rd grader to-be is looking forward to being back in the classroom.

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While busy decorating her school, she was more than willing to give us the low down on why this school year is such a big deal.

"I'm going to be actually seeing my teacher instead of in the camera," says Leyva.

While she's excited to ditch the screens, some youngsters told us distance learning had its positives.

"I kind of liked it because I was with my mom the whole time and my sister," says 9-year-old Anabella Leyva.

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While we may now be on the road to recovery, the road already traveled during the last 18 months has been a bumpy one, and experts say, it's had a major impact on young children -- One that was initially seen in the spring when some students first went back to class in a hybrid form.

"At the elementary school years it's important for them to socialize and it's part of their identity and who they are. So having those experiences changed, I think has led to loneliness, a little anxiety as well," says Marsha Pinto.

Pinto is a speech-language pathologist in the San Jose Unified School District. She says the negative impact on kid's social skills has been an obvious one and teachers we spoke with agree.

"Those were definite challenges in our house of watching my kids kind of go through withdrawal and depression when they are these happy outgoing kiddos," says Nicole Galassi Hillman, who is not only a mother but a teacher in South San Francisco.

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"Social norms are so often seen as something you're supposed to pick up without instruction and so many of our children have lost that year and a half, not just of academic learning but also of that social and emotional learning," says Alexandra Goodwin who is a 6th grade English and history instructor in Fremont.

"That proximity of being with people... it's so important for children to, at any age, to be around other children their age, and really get that time to talk and laugh and cry and be a supportive shoulder for each other," says another 6th grade teacher Michael Rivera.

"We are taking care of each other, then we can focus on the growth academically and the social emotional growth that needs to happen for our students," says Fremont Unified School District Superintendent CJ Cammack.

When we spoke with elementary school students, all of them talked about that social time.

"I'm looking forward to playing with my friends at recess," says 9-year-old Carter Ward, who will be in 4th grade this year.

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"I get to meet new friends. I'm a good friend maker," says Ward's 6-year-old sister Lily.

"I would like to go back to seeing my teacher and saying hello, not on the screen," says Alicea Leyva.

And us adults aren't the only ones still a bit concerned about going back during a surge of COVID-19 cases.

"I'm a little nervous but I'm a little excited too," says Anabella Leyva.

Most believe the positives outweigh the negatives.

RELATED: Bay Area school districts push for in-person learning despite fears around Delta variant

Pinto says they've seen language delays with kids who don't properly know how to express themselves and turn-taking concerns with children suffering with anxiety. Raising your hand instead of pushing a raise hand button could be a challenge going forward.

Besides encouragement Pinto recommends talking to your kids but not with the usual 'how was school?', rather specific questions such as,

"What are some things that went well today? What are some things that didn't go well today? Obviously, parents didn't have to grow up in a pandemic but sharing a similar experience of something you were scared about and how it turned out to be better," says Pinto.

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As for what's involved in preparing for a full day of in person class....

"I'm kind of going to wear different masks every day, some of them have characters on them and some just the color," says Anabella.

"I have some Star Wars ones and some plain ones," says Carter.

"I have the ones that are really comfortable on me so I think I'm going to choose those ones," says Alicea.

Instructors we talked to say the academic challenges going forward will be of great concern, and say the first few weeks will be very important in evaluating student needs.

Fremont Unified School District is one of several that says they've also added additional counselors and social workers as a way to help students go back to in-person learning all day long.