For our free coronavirus pandemic coverage, learn more here.
Finn had a panic attack on the first day of year 8.
After spending most of last year in lockdown, he was convinced that he hadn’t learnt enough. “I really didn’t think I was ready for year 8, because I missed a bit more than half a year of year 7,” he says.
Science was dull without the pracs and he struggled to learn Japanese, an entirely new language with three different scripts, via a computer screen.
Finn had a panic attack on his first day of year 8 because he was worried he hadn’t learnt enough during lockdown. Credit:Nicole Cleary
Finn repeatedly told his parents he felt like a fraud, that he should still be in year 7.
“And that caused him huge, huge amounts of anxiety,” says his mother, Madlaina. “He basically shut down. The school actually called an ambulance because they were so concerned, they didn’t know what to do.”
Ultimately Finn found he was “maybe a bit behind but so were a lot of other people too”.
But Victoria’s fourth lockdown triggered memories of 2020, “especially when we started getting a lot of cases and I was really worried it would explode”.
“It was hard seeing things suddenly have to stop because there’s something so small I can’t even see it,” he says.
“It’s a lot about uncertainty and a complete lack of control over what happens. It’ll throw any plan you have out the window every time there’s a lockdown. It was tough, but I’m still here.”
In normal times Madlaina believes Finn, like many adolescents navigating puberty and the transition between primary and secondary schools, may have experienced some anxiety.
“But not like this,” she says. “The severity, the extent of it, I think is a direct result of the pandemic, or the lockdowns resulting from the pandemic.”
She worries about the impact of this epoch-defining disaster on a generation of young people.
“Hopefully they’ll come out the other end with a war story to tell, but I do think it’s going to have a long-term impact on a lot of kids in terms of their mental health.”
Across the globe, people are questioning what the impact of a calamity of this scale will have on what some are already dubbing Generation C – those growing up in a society profoundly altered by COVID-19.
What are the long-term effects of things like lockdowns and school closures on young people? And what lessons can we learn from the past?
Modelling conducted by Orygen, the national centre for youth mental health and University of Melbourne, in May 2020 predicted an additional 82,000 young Victorians would experience mental health disorders by mid-2023 as a result of the pandemic.
“Unfortunately our predictions appear to have been strongly validated by the growing surge we have seen in need for mental health care for young people in recent months. And we know from all previous disasters that this crisis won’t be over when the pandemic itself recedes,” says Orygen executive director Professor Patrick McGorry.
“Our predictions are in the process of being updated by others now, but it does look like there will be a significant increase – up to a 30 per cent increase – in need for care for young people sustained over the coming months and years.”
McGorry says the modelling showed young people would be more severely affected, and this has now come to pass. “Young people … are naturally more fragile in their coping skills and experience of life. They’re in a transitional stage of life, which puts them at the highest level of risk for mental ill health across the whole lifespan.”
Olive spent most of her last year of primary school in lockdown. She missed out on all the year 6 milestones: camp, an excursion to Funfields Themepark, picnics and the school fair. “We were really upset because it was our last year and we didn’t even get to have it.”
Olive with her mother Simone.Credit:Jason South
Olive found online learning difficult. “It was really hard to pay attention in class, it was like everything would be a distraction and I didn’t really get much done.” This year she feels “way more behind than everyone else”, especially in maths and science.
“Since last year – even this lockdown – I’ve lost a lot of motivation. And I just feel really sad and depressed a lot of the time.”
Olive figured this time the lockdown would be a week and she could hang out with her friends on the weekend.
“But it got extended and we got really really upset. Whenever I’m sad a lot of the things that makes me happy is my friend, because I don’t like the feeling of being alone. And my friend is an escape from my sadness, and when I can’t see them it just makes me feel worse.”
Olive’s mother, Simone, a casual relief teacher, has seen the effect lockdowns have had on children from a range of year groups, academically and socially.
“I was at a primary school working on the day that lockdown was announced and there were kids crying because they didn’t want to be stuck at home again.”
Simone’s oldest daughter wasn’t able to do work experience because of COVID-19.
“Little things like that that I took for granted, growing up, they haven’t been able to have that experience,” she says. “Unfortunately I feel this cohort of students going through constant lockdowns – and no one knows when this might all end given the pervasive nature of COVID – have been tragically short-changed with their education and experience of school.”
In the autumn of 2020 (spring in the northern hemisphere) schools were closed in countries across the world.
”There has never been such a social experiment in human history,” Dr Klaus Zierer, professor of education at the University of Augsburg in Germany, writes in one of the first multi-country analyses of the impact of pandemic-related school closures.
In the review – published in the peer-reviewed journal Education Sciences on May 22 – Zierer analysed data from the US, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany.
He found that students across all the countries had already fallen behind in learning after 6 to 8 weeks of school closures in the first lockdown.
“These measures resulted in a reduction in learning of between 23 and 35 per cent of a school year, which amounts to between 8 and 13 weeks of learning loss,” he told The Age.
This was greater than the duration of the school closure itself, he says, because attitudes to learning had suffered, children missed out on social contact and some schools had not responded adequately when students returned to school.
“What should not be overlooked here is that school closures have been longer in almost all countries in the meantime, so that even greater effects can be expected,” Zierer adds.
But he stresses there is more at stake than just student performance.
Mental disorders are on the rise in the wake of the pandemic, Zierer says, an increase in screen time has led to a reduction in physical activity and surveys showed many students had experienced a decline in motivation to learn.
“In the longer term, these factors are more serious than the decline in learning performance because they form the foundation for it,” Zierer says. “The damage caused in this way is not even visible yet.”
Dr Peter Goss, who leads PwC’s Australia’s school education consulting practice, says while it was anticipated the effect of lockdown on learning would be grim, there have been some surprises.
University of Newcastle research in NSW government primary schools, for example, found only year 3 students from the least advantaged schools fell behind academically during the remote learning period. However the study found student well-being did suffer, with teachers and principals expressing concern even after the return to face-to-face schooling.
Education researcher Professor John Hattie believes those concerned about a loss of learning can be reassured by what occurred after the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, which shut schools for weeks.
At the time Hattie was an adviser to the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, which oversaw senior high school exams. The authority was under pressure to give students special dispensations for exams.
But Hattie advised against this based on research on the impact of teachers’ strikes, which showed no effects on students’ performance at the upper school level, with positive effects in many cases.
“Sure enough, the performance of Christchurch students went up, and as schools resumed, the scores settled back down,” Hattie says.
Hattie attributes this to teachers focusing explicitly on what students didn’t know in the lead up to their exams. “Teachers move from lots of talking to lots of listening,” Hattie says.
It’s early days yet, but Hattie is similarly sanguine about the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns.
“Overall the average negative effect is pretty small,” he says. “I think we’ve got to give credit to teachers for stopping major learning loss.”
As students return to school Hattie believes they should all be evaluated to determine how the pandemic has impacted on them: “What COVID has done is shown that the social and emotional is a key part of learning and not something that we should be thinking of as a separate issue.”
Sebastiano, who is in year 10, says his mental health took a massive dive towards the end of last year. He “switched off” at the end of term three, worried about his friends in Italy and the US, where he grew up. By the second week of term four, he had stopped doing school work completely.
Year 10 student Sebastiano says his mental health took a massive dive towards the end of 2020.Credit:Jason South
“I missed out on a fair amount of school work as a cause of my cracking under pressure … not too much, it could have been worse,” Sebastiano says.
“My friends, especially those in New York, have also seen a decline in their mental health, everything seems to be magnified more. But even from a distance we often spent time ‘sitting’ together in a voice chat speaking to one another doing things from video games to helping on another complete work.”
Now back at school and doing one VCE subject in year 10, Sebastiano believes he will recover quickly from the effects of the pandemic.
“Teachers have been doing their best to organise us all and try to patch up gaps in our learning which we missed on. It’s generally very chaotic.”
He and his friends agree they will never forget living through the pandemic.
“It certainly will ensure we keep our cleanliness and there will be ones throughout the younger generations who will be mentally impacted, in a sort of way, it will ‘scar’ us, leaving us in a critical point of our lives.”
Professor Janet Clinton, the deputy dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, believes most young people will be fine. “Broadly children are resilient,” she says.
“My concern is for those students who are already facing issues within their lives.”
Clinton says the effect of the pandemic is exacerbated for children from violent homes, for whom school can be a safe haven, those with behavioural issues, children living in poverty, who may not have access to the internet or sufficient food, and those whose parents are unable or unwilling to assist with their school work.
Last year a report found 10 per cent of Victorian students from disadvantaged schools were absent during the state’s first period of remote learning compared to just 4 per cent in advantaged schools.
“If you look at the young people who are already in that vulnerable group, for some of them the probability of getting out of that vulnerable group becomes less and less,” Professor Clinton says.
Social worker John Chellew, the director of Bayside School Refusal Clinic, has received a “massive increase” in referrals of young people refusing to go to school after the lockdowns.
“The children that tend to come to me are smart, creative, risk averse over-thinkers who worry a lot,” Chellew says.
“When kids are anxious they require structure and predictable routines in their day to feel at all in control of their lives. When school is disrupted, they feel less connected, so therefore more likely to to kick back about going to school. All the research says that the longer kids have been out of school, the harder it is to get them back.”
On June 1, the Victorian Commission for Children and Young People began surveying how young people were feeling during the state’s fourth lockdown.
Victorian Children’s Commissioner Liana Buchanan.Credit:Justin McManus
Commissioner Liana Buchanan says that of the 220 responses received so far – most of whom were aged between 13 and 16 – common themes were experiences of anxiety, feeling overwhelmed and feeling isolated.
“I am trying to find the right word – it makes me deeply concerned,” Ms Buchanan says.
“A number of them were talking about significant mental illness, about having experienced depression or self-harm last year and either experiencing that again or being fearful that they’re going to go through that again during the lockdown over the last two weeks.”
Buchanan is hopeful that in the future Victoria will be able to contain the community transmission of COVID-19 without blanket shutdowns of schools.
“What children tell us through these surveys is not going to school really increases their isolation, it increase their anxiety, for many it leaves them feeling completely disconnected from education,” she says. “If we can find a way to safely keep schools open, I’ll be very very pleased.”
On Friday, the Victorian government announced an extra $9.57 million for mental health services, including funding for headspace, which provides mental health services for 12-25 year olds and services for people with eating disorders.
The number and severity of eating disorders among young people surged during the pandemic, with stress, anxiety, loss of control and dislocation from friends, school and normal life all potential triggers for disordered eating.
“The current restrictions are in place to protect every Victorian – but we know this is a tough time and many are struggling with their mental health,” said acting Premier James Merlino.
In March the BMJ, a peer-reviewed journal published by the British Medical Association, published an article on the mental health of children and young people during the pandemic, noting that deterioration is clearest among families already struggling.
“The long-term effects also remain uncertain,” it says. “What we do know is that education has been disrupted and many young people now face an uncertain future.”
And then, rather poignantly, it quotes from the 1982 social history The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman.
“As ‘children are the living message we send to a time we will not see’, we urgently need to improve our efforts to meet their needs and to ensure that this generation is not disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”
Most Viewed in National
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article