An increase in Nevada student suicides has pushed Clark County, the nation’s fifth-largest school district, to reconsider its online learning strategy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to The New York Times, district officials have received more than 3,100 alerts regarding student mental health since schools in the county shut their doors in March. By December 2020, 18 students in the county had committed suicide.
In response, the Clark County School District Board of Trustees announced on Jan. 14 that they had approved a plan to return struggling students to the classroom in spite of potential virus exposure. The plan would allow schools to offer in-person instruction to students who need it the most on a voluntary basis.
“When we started to see the uptick in children taking their lives, we knew it wasn’t just the COVID numbers we need to look at anymore,” said Jesus Jara, the CCSD superintendent, told The Times.
“We have to find a way to put our hands on our kids, to see them, to look at them. They’ve got to start seeing some movement, some hope.”
The 18 suicides recorded over nine months of school closures doubled those recorded the previous year. The youngest student to commit suicide this past year was only 9 years old.
“Every day, it feels like we have run out time,” Jara said.
The situation is not unique to Clark County. While schools have always had to address the topic of student mental health, districts across the nation have had to cope with the exacerbation of mental health problems in a new age of lockdowns and social distancing.
The parents of 14-year-old freshman Michael Myronuk Jr. told WBFF-TV how their son “gave up” after Baltimore County Schools opted to continue virtual learning until February. Myronuk’s mother, Heathyr Sidle, said the school closure had caused her son to struggle academically, and the isolation from his friends and teachers further impacted his mental health.
Myronuk’s parents reportedly tried to notify the school about their son’s difficulties with online learning, but the school seemed unreceptive.
“He was struggling, and not just struggling but spiraling,” the boy’s father, Michael Myronuk Sr., said. “And then we’re told by say, the school systems, ‘Oh yeah, lots of kids are going through that. Yeah, just stay the course. Everything will be fine.'”
Late last October, Myronuk Jr. committed suicide.
“There’s just so much isolation you can put any human being in. And since March, to imagine, just being a teenager is hard enough,” Sidle said. “It’s too much. It’s not healthy, and there’s nothing normal about this at all.”
Myronuk Jr.’s parents are not the only ones that have attributed their son’s suicide to COVID-19 lockdown measures.
Jay Smith, the father of a 16-year-old boy who committed suicide last December in Maine, told WRCB-TV that his son had trouble coping with remote learning.
“We knew he was upset because he was no longer able to participate in his school activities, football. We never guessed it was this bad,” Smith said.
“Looking back now we could see little things that we should have caught but we didn’t realize his mental health was deteriorating as bad.”
As with other parents, Smith said that his son’s grades suffered as he grappled with remote learning, and he stopped participating in the athletic activities he had previously enjoyed. Even when the school resumed in-person classes one day per week, Smith said that his son preferred to stay home, as social distancing guidelines still prevented him from interacting with his peers.
In the suicide note he left behind, the teenage boy detailed his struggles with being isolated, writing that he felt “locked in this house.”
Since national data on 2020 deaths has yet to be compiled, it is difficult to establish a clear link between school closures and adolescent suicides.
Still, concerns about the impact school closures have had on students are not new.
During a July telebriefing, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that there would be “substantial public health negative consequences for children not being in school.”
“It’s in the best public health interests of the K-12 for them to get back in school,” Redfield said.
Dr. Mitchell Zais, the former acting secretary of education, added, “It’s not a matter of if it should be done, but rather how it must be done.”
A CDC report conducted between Jan. 1 and Oct. 17 of 2020 appeared to affirm Redfield’s warning. From early April to October, the number of mental health-related visits for children aged 5 to 11 and 12 to 17 had increased by 24 percent and 31 percent, respectively, compared to what they were in 2019.
If school children continue to be deprived of in-person education, not only will their mental health continue to deteriorate — the emotional fallout of the pandemic will be felt for years to come.
The effect that school closures have had on students cannot be ignored by district officials and politicians making decisions about whether or not to reopen.
Those in charge need to start putting child welfare first and set out on the road normal, in-person instruction.
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