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Rowdy Students, Overwhelmed Teachers: How the Pandemic Scarred Public Schools

July 11, 2022

Fighting, tardiness, absenteeism, and an unwillingness to complete classwork are all issues Rebekkah Biven, a public school teacher in Tulsa, Okla. says were exacerbated post-pandemic. After the COVID lockdowns, Biven and many of her colleagues at MacArthur Elementary returned to classrooms that were more chaotic than before due to months of isolation that had adverse effects on students' social skills.

“The first year back in the classroom was hard. A lot of students were behind in their learning and had to catch up in several areas. There were also several behavioral issues that interfered with learning,” Biven told The Washington Stand. “Teachers seemed to spend just as much time teaching social skills as they did teaching. Which is normal in pre-K and kindergarten, not as much in 5th or 6th grade.”

Addressing Students’ Behavioral Issues 

According to data from the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), more than 80% of public schools have seen a rise in behavioral issues in students. Compared to the typical year before the pandemic, 46% of schools across the nation reported more fighting and threats of physical attacks between students outside the classroom. 

The findings, collected at the end of the 2021-2022 academic year, are based on responses from leaders at 846 public schools. Half of the schools reported increased acts of disrespect toward teachers and staff. 

Biven confirms that this has also been true at her school and has led to teachers having to categorize the severity of disrespect. 

“A lot of the kids don’t know how to process their emotions, especially in social settings, because when they’re young, school is where they learn to express emotion in public and around friends. And they didn’t get that for about a year,” the teacher of 11 years observed. “So a lot of them don’t know how to respectfully express their emotions.” 

Apart from having to deescalate more disputes, Biven said there is also an increase in tardiness and children missing school entirely. The NCES data reveals that this was a nationwide issue this last academic year, with 70% of the surveyed schools reporting an increase in student absenteeism. 

At MacArthur Elementary, teachers are keeping track of students by doing more home visits. 

“The pandemic disrupted our students’ home lives because a lot of parents lost jobs and a lot of kids lost parents,” Biven shared. “As much the quarantine was hard on the parents, it was a lot worse for kids because they didn’t understand what the TV was saying. They just saw all the adults around them freaking out. They didn’t know why and nobody was really explaining it to them. So that made it hard for them to have the ability to process what was going on.”

The Plight of Teachers 

“I think one of the hardest things for a lot of teachers is the larger class sizes. Throughout the pandemic, many teachers retired which makes class sizes bigger,” Biven said.

But the issue is worse than there being fewer teachers. Many schools around the country report having a shortage of bus drivers, teacher assistants, custodians, and cafeteria workers. This is leaving teachers overworked, which Biven expressed as “tiring and frustrating.” 

America’s public schools have a lot to overcome, but Biven is confident that her students are resilient. Although there has been a great exodus of teachers from the classroom due to being poorly paid and overworked, she made it clear that she isn’t going anywhere. “I’ve stayed for the same reason many of my colleagues stay, because we love the kids.”

Tackling Students’ Mental Health Issues 

Dr. Jennifer Bauwens, director of the Center of Family Studies at Family Research Council, described the pandemic as a “prolonged experience of worldwide trauma.” She noted that the foundation of American families was already shaky before the pandemic, with children glued to screens, addicted to shallow interactions on social media, and parents too busy to be present. The nearly year-long lockdown worsened these issues. 

“One of the main things that you need in a disaster is social support. So when social support is lacking, your rate of post-traumatic stress disorder is typically higher,” said Bauwens.

She went on to share that COVID forced children to transition to online learning and only interact with their peers virtually. Parents were also left without quality social support from friends, coworkers, and the everyday people they interact with in their normal routines. 

Bauwens, who has worked extensively in providing clinical trauma-focused treatment for children in foster care, believes that students’ behavioral issues and absenteeism are “trauma responses” to the lack of “quality social support.”

Apart from the pandemic, living in a time of rampant school shootings has further traumatized students. In 2020-2021, there were a total of 93 school shootings, with casualties in public and private elementary and secondary schools. According to the NCES report, this is the highest number of school shootings since the 2000-2001 academic year. 

“This is a simplistic observation, but certainly, one reason for these shootings could be the whole isolation dynamic,” Bauwens asserted. “A year in quarantine certainly didn’t help the mental health of those who decided to shoot other people.”

Bauwens urges Americans to care about the mental health of Generation Z and acknowledge the role they are playing in the shaping of their minds.

“We have to look at the things that we’re teaching our kids,” she emphasized. “Are we promoting a healthy identity or are we deterring them from who God’s made them to be? Are we promoting spirituality or are we promoting a religion of self? Because those are the things that we’ve been teaching and promoting for some time and we’re now starting to bear the fruit of it through more shootings and less secure kids.”

Some education specialists believe that the mental and emotional well-being of students can be addressed by hiring more guidance counselors and social workers. While Bauwens agrees that students need mental health support, she believes parents should be the primary caretakers and provide the best quality social support system for children. 

Meg Kilgannon, senior fellow for Education Studies at Family Research Council, concurred. “It is up to individual parents to address issues with their individual student.” 

“When you try to deal with these human problems on a massive scale, like the entire public school system, that’s not going to work because these are personal problems that have mental, emotional, and spiritual complexity to them,” Kilgannon argued. 

Bauwens underscored the need for a grounding in a higher power. “Let’s start investing in our children’s well-being by going back to church and God,” she advised. “We also need to spend actual quality time [with] our kids and listen to them. Give them an opportunity to share what’s on their mind without shutting them down.”

Deborah Laker serves as a staff writer at The Washington Stand.