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Almost a year after the pandemic forced much of K–12 education online, the new president, Joe Biden, is pushing to get kids back in school, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is saying it can be safe. But how do the kids feel about that? On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Jan Desmarais-Morse, a school counselor in Goshen, Indiana, where students are transitioning from remote learning to in-person school. She sees her kids struggling with both the isolation of being stuck at home and the anxiety of being indoors with their peers, and she’s worried about the psychic toll the pandemic has taken, is taking, on their young lives. A portion of our conversation is transcribed below, condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: There’s a lot of focus on just getting the kids back to school. That’s seen as an endpoint, a good unto itself, which you could argue it is. But maybe it’s just the first step.

Jan Desmarais-Morse: Right. [The kids] haven’t put anything else behind them. There’s still students struggling with anxiety. Anxiety’s been off the chart. There’s still students who have those traumas going on within the home that they can’t even escape from. You have kids who are still battling traumatic past history. Or just not being able to get out and do anything, or they’re sucked into this vortex of the internet that they can’t escape from. So it’s good on one hand, but it’s so not on the other.

Your school provides laptops and iPads for each kid, so when they went remote last year, at least they had access to technology. But they were still dealing with all the challenges everyone else was—families who had no internet or not enough internet, families too overwhelmed to get their kids online. So you and your colleagues started going door to door.

I believe our families, our parents, always do the best they can with the tools they have. One family I went to had six or seven children in the home that need to be on their devices at the same time, and their Wi-Fi’s not working to handle the demands of all that.

We never want to scold a family because we want to embrace them. If we scold, then that’s just going to push them further away from us. So we have to find ways to connect with them in whatever way possible. Going and knocking on the doors would find: what do families need?

And then we would have other families that would not answer the door. They would not be receptive to us because they just, for whatever reason, needed to maintain that barrier. So we would just have to keep trying. You have to keep trying because you can’t give up. You can’t say we’re going to write them off because it’s getting too hard to work with. No, these are human beings we’re talking about. These are kids we’re talking about. And we have to keep trying and keep leaving the door open.

You’re used to meeting in the middle ground of the school. It’s like a neutral territory—everyone goes there, no one lives there. But Zoom school opened up this whole new way of seeing each other and seeing your students.

You see into their lives. You’re invading someone’s private space. And you get a different, a fuller picture of what’s going on for our students, which in some ways is a good thing for our teachers because it just helps them understand what our kids are dealing with that you may not pick up on in the school setting.

Is there any way that you look at this pandemic time and this window into the kids’ worlds and think it’ll make you a more perceptive counselor moving forward, or make the teachers see the students differently in the years ahead?

Gosh, I hope so. I have one teacher who has driven by the home of every single one of her students because she wants to have a window into their world. And she just understands her kids better. She just has a better picture of them.

Through the pandemic and through the online class structure, there’s an awakening and an awareness of the importance of doing something that helps connect our students in that social, emotional peace of just having fun. Oh, my gosh, we’ve lost the ability to have fun at school. And I think when we come back into the normal life of school, I hope that peace does not go away because that makes all the difference.

Your sixth grade students have been back in the building for a few weeks now. The older kids just joined them. So the building is pretty full. But the kids have to wash their hands and use sanitizer on their way in and out of classrooms, and the teachers have to wipe everything down every time classes change. And as kids come back to the school building, they are bringing new anxieties with them.

With our seventh and eighth graders coming back in, we had some kids [whose] anxiety level was really, really high.

Because they were worried that there would be more kids in the school and it would be more dangerous?

More kids in the school, more exposure, and then the anxiety of having been isolated for so long and coming back in with large groups of people and being surrounded by people, that upped the anxiety level as well. So my colleagues—it’s been a revolving door in their office with the seventh and eighth graders coming back, some due to anxiety. I had one colleague who said, “First student in my office today, he has never accessed a school counselor in his life, and he just had to talk to somebody because he just had to talk to somebody. He hasn’t talked to anybody for the longest time, and he needed an adult who could just listen to him.”

“We’re going to get to a point where we can’t hold off any longer from bringing students back.”

— Jan Desmarais-Morse

That’s heartbreaking.

It is heartbreaking. So many things we forget about and we take for granted. And then there are other kids who want a hands-off—“Don’t even talk to me. Just leave me alone.” But other students are just hungry, hungry for that human connection, hungry to be in the same room with a caring adult as opposed to having a computer between you.

I think of middle school as being this time of tremendous change, when kids are kind of pupas again, and their environment is so important, and their environment is school. I wonder how you think all this might change the teachers and the kids—but mostly the kids, because they’re at such a tender age—how it could change them permanently.

They’re missing out on some very key developmental opportunities, things that help them grow into the human beings they’re going to be eventually. And there are all these trials and errors that you’re supposed to experience that they’re not exposed to, just in the balancing of relationships and the conflicts that arise and how to work out those conflicts face to face or with people that are in your presence. And the fact that our students are so isolated—will they become so comfortable with being isolated that they don’t even know the importance of community because they’ve never experienced it?

Do you think school is going to open up in the fall the way it used to?

I hope so. I think we’re going to get to a point where we can’t hold off any longer from bringing students back into schools and trying to have life as normal. I think there’s going to come a time when we just have to say, “We have to keep moving forward.” There’s only so long that we can continue to do it the way we’re doing it right now.

A long time ago, I heard a story about a polar bear. The polar bear was in a zoo, some kind of confined setting. And they were worried about the polar bear because it had started to have some very erratic behavior where it would just swim in a figure-eight pattern. That’s all it was doing. And they didn’t know what was happening because it was different behavior and it was prolonged behavior, and they were basically worried about the mental health of this polar bear. What they ended up doing was they would allow the polar bear to hunt. And it changed everything for the polar bear. Like, it was manic when it was doing the figure eights. It was going crazy.

So you’re seeing your middle schoolers swimming figure eights right now.

I feel that we are getting to the point where they will be swimming in figure eights. They’re not there yet. But I feel like if we keep isolating our kids, if we keep isolating human beings, they’re all going to be swimming in figure eights, and I feel like at some point we’re going to have to get back into school to preempt that. And I say that knowing that there are people and friends that I have who do not want to go back to school because they are afraid, and maybe they’re at high risk, and I am not going to tell them that that’s how they should feel. But I just feel like at some point it’s going to come to critical mass, and we’re going to have to do something and we’re not going to like it. We’re just going to have to push through it.

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