Schools stay grounded amidst pandemic challenges

Students at St. John Vianney Catholic School in Orlando begin the school year Aug. 26 following new guidelines for safety. The choice between sending children to school and distance learning offers families the ability to make risk assessments with which they are comfortable. (LINDA CALDWELL | FC)

ORLANDO  |  Teachers and students are feeling the stress of education under pandemic circumstances. Worst yet, no one knows what long-term effects distance learning and extended quarantines will have on humanity.

Most Precious Blood parishioner Pat Lopez teaches at a public school. Referring to the new school year she acknowledged, “It’s been a rough start,” but her faith is helping her through. The Spanish teacher said she chose to teach on campus, despite fears of contracting the Coronavirus, meeting the challenges of unfamiliar technology, and working hard to insure that online and in-class students’ educational needs are met. She believes, “It’s better for the kids.” Lopez is not alone. Throughout the diocese, Catholic and public school teachers alike are making sacrifices and making peace with their fears with the help of faith and practical habits.

Lopez addresses fears head on. She was tested before returning to class to be sure she was healthy enough to do so. Most importantly, Lopez wakes up each day and takes a few minutes in prayer “giving thanks and praying to make it through another day.”

Her conscious gratitude for fellow teachers who offer assistance or a listening ear serve to bolster her spirits and confidence. Although the first three weeks have admittedly been among her most difficult in 33 years of teaching, she is also grateful for the students who are “patient and good.” When the day becomes too much, she walks Caesar, her Gordon Setter to get exercise and fresh air. It allows her to put some distance between her work day and personal life.

“God is with us because we’re making it through. It’s a wonderful thing,” she said.

Lopez is not alone. Throughout the diocese, Catholic and public school teachers alike are making sacrifices and making peace with their fears. Area psychologists offer suggestions to stay grounded, through practical and faithful exercises that root one in the “present moment” while teachers and students share their concerns.

Kyle Osborne, a Catholic Charities of Central Florida behavioral services mental health counselor, said she witnesses students struggling as well.

When schools nationwide went virtual last spring, it was anticipated to last only until the end of the school year. Today, the scenario is different. Some students may never get to meet their teacher in person or physically hang out and make new friends this school year, let alone participate in extracurricular activities.

“Young people are going to be worried about anxiety because a lot of them are going to be fearful about whether they are going to do well in school,” Osborn said.

Sixth-grader, Connor, who attends Sacred Heart Catholic School in New Smyrna is a distance learner, and his situation and reactions are common. “I felt a little stressed this week since I’m not in a groove yet, and it’s a new way to learn,” he said. “But, my mom and I are figuring it out with the help of my teachers.”

Osborn said many parents are saying their children are afraid of losing friendships if they don’t return to school, or will “miss out” on friendships. For those staying home and doing virtual school, depression is a big possibility because of this lack of interaction. The virtual factor makes it difficult for students with new teachers, especially younger students. It is harder to develop relationships using a virtual format. Even those in “blended” classes (some in class while others are simultaneously participating via livestream) as in Lopez’s courses, are not getting much interaction.

Osborn explained that a terrorist attack or natural disaster may be a short-term event that causes long-term effects. The pandemic is different. She has seen it firsthand at Catholic Charities. At first, people needed food, then money, or a job. Mental healthcare follows because people can’t handle the stress. Calls to Catholic Charities’ TeleHealth line are increasing daily. Nationally, the same is true. The mental health hotline, run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, reported 20,000 texts in April 2020—compared to 1,790 in April of 2019 according to the American Psychological Association.

“This pandemic is like a long, drawn out traumatic event,” she said. “People will go through different phases of it.”

Osborn is finding many families are calling in, “not with new things, but old traumas are being re-triggered because of all the stress.” To assist people of every age, Catholic Charities provides a list of coping tips to relieve anxiety. A downloadable PDF is available here. She referred to these practices as a way of “keeping your tank full” so you don’t end up on empty.

“It’s still important that we take care of ourselves. We can’t help other people if we’re stressed,” she said.

Catholic Charities behavioral health specialists also created a flyer listing signs of which to be aware and ways to help children having trouble. Click here for a downloadable PDF.

Lisa Sojourner is a licensed mental health therapist with her own practice, Sojourner Counseling in Orlando. Sojourner spent the past 10 years in Catholic schools working with students from Father Lopez Catholic High School in Daytona Beach and Bishop Moore Catholic High School in Orlando. She alerts parents to a possible increase in suicidality, which she explained as a “solution-oriented behavior.”

“The problem is psychological pain,” she said. “The pain has become so intense that your ability to find solutions has narrowed down to this only one solution.”

The pain arises from loneliness and hopelessness, and Sojourner said emotions are bound to spike during the pandemic. Parents should be on the lookout for sudden changes in behavior, depression, increased isolation. She also urged parents to look at the COVID-19 risk chart created by the Texas Medical Association found at texmed.org. She added the risk chart  helps identify from where tensions are stemming and helps externalize, rather than personalize the frustrations with others.

Social connections within a socially distant comfort range can reduce aloneness and loneliness, as can family familiar routines. If the student played soccer, for example, and cannot now due to COVID restrictions, perhaps a family soccer game at a park might help.

With three children of her own (ages 4, 2 and 2 months), COVID -19 also presented challenges in Sojourner’s home. The decision whether or not to send her 4-year-old to school weighed on Sojourner and her husband, Andy. Their son was displaying behavioral issues because of his lack of sociability. The couple finally decided the emotional risk to his development was not worth keeping him home.

She explained, in younger children, often those windows of opportunity do not reopen. Similarly, this can happen to teens. The inability to connect with friends and hang out can impact developmental milestones. But she emphasized, there isn’t one option that is the best for everyone.

“It really, truly is what makes sense for the individual and the family from year to year,” she said. “Evaluate where your comfort level is with risk and what has been the impact on your student.”

Sojourner also offers spiritual practices to restore one’s peace and hope. She explained how the rosary can be used as a grounding technique. Along with the spiritual benefits, the rhythmic way one moves through prayer using the beads has physical benefits as it realigns breathing and engages the brain on a neurological level.

“When you’re really anxious about something, it can be as if you’re being swept away by the tides of your emotions,” she said. “You feel flooded and your emotions are controlling what’s going on for you. Grounding brings you back to the here and now, this moment in time.”

Another method is taking a moment before praying to engage all five senses and become aware of your surroundings. Pausing to light a candle prior to prayer and briefly observe the flame can slow down the mind and bring calm. She said when people acknowledge their sadness, anger and frustration in prayer, they can recall the psalmists who frequently begin with their lament, then turn to praise and gratitude. Her take away: find what works for you and look for the silver lining.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic, August 26, 2020