For many in Greater Grand Forks, the COVID-related school shutdowns last spring were reminiscent of 1997, when local schools closed during that year’s devastating flood.

Those who remember the flood might offer clues into the future of students whose learning has been disrupted during the pandemic the past year, said Katrina Brekke, a school counselor at South Point Elementary School in East Grand Forks.

For many, the anxiety of the flood didn’t recede when the waters did. Instead, some of those who suffered traumatic experiences find that the flood continues to resonate and she suspects a similar anxiety could exist for some students post-pandemic.

“Will that look like general flashbacks? Will it look like feeling anxious when you hear someone is getting sick? Or when you see someone wearing a mask, or hearing news of a new virus spreading or something? Will we all have this big reaction? Yeah, possibly,” Brekke said. “I’m curious to see how that will play out, and what stories the students will start to tell themselves about this time.”

Counselors at schools in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks say they are concerned the pandemic not only will leave a gap in students’ learning, but also in the emotional and social growth that occurs in traditional classes and interaction that exemplifies a typical school year.

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And in an interview this month with the Herald, North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said it’s important to understand that the detriment to students’ social and emotional health may be a real side effect of the yearlong pandemic.

“I think we have to all recognize and acknowledge that the disruption alone has caused an impact on people's social and emotional well-being, including our youth,” Baesler said.

In Greater Grand Forks, teachers are telling school officials they believe students already are experiencing impacts to their mental health because of the pandemic. School officials on both sides of the river in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks agree that because districts are still very much in the midst of the pandemic, there is not yet any good way to quantify elevated student anxiety.

Teachers and counselors are seeing students who are experiencing more anxiety, as might be expected with families trying to deal with stressful situations caused by the pandemic, said Geoff Gaukler, mental health coordinator for Grand Forks Public Schools.

What may be surprising in this year of pandemic-induced stress is that the number of Grand Forks students who have been hospitalized for mental health issues is the lowest it’s been in the last 20 years, so “it’s a little counterintuitive,” Gaukler said.

The school district is unable to provide specific numbers, but of those students who have been hospitalized, high-schoolers outnumber younger students, he said.

In his role as the district’s mental health coordinator, Gaukler views the pandemic as “a two-sided coin,” he said. “It certainly has come with challenges and (there are) opportunities or potential growth areas.”

COVID has meant extra challenges for educators and school administrators, yet it also is an opportunity for teachers to embrace “a renewed focus on the importance of fostering relationships – and how that actually is a focus for social-emotional learning, but has a positive impact on academics too.”

The pandemic has prompted educators to “reevaluate everything we’re doing and how we can be more supportive,” Gaukler said.

He points to the Mentor Center, which opened in January on the UND campus to further support students’ academic, social and mental health needs.

That center “would not exist if not for the pandemic (and) funds from a grant from the Governor’s Office,” he said. “That’s been a wonderful resource for a lot of kids and families.”

Prior to the pandemic, Gaukler assembled a Unified Mental Health Team of 24 school counselors, 12 school social workers, six school psychologists, all full-time, and a part-time psychometrist, who performs cognitive testing.

Other team members are “mental health specialists,” he said. Together, there are 48 staffers who fill a mental health position within the district, he said.

He and his colleagues have conducted numerous training sessions for staff and are collecting student data on social and emotional health. They are encouraged by results of a survey last fall that found about 90% of students said, “Yes, there are trusted adults I could go to at school if I needed help right now.”

Gaukler and other educators, though, are concerned that national studies show that “one in eight students feels isolated or alone,” he said. “And that is pre-pandemic,” so part of their focus is on making schools more welcoming.

‘Building trusting relationships’

According to Kim Novacek, a counselor at Kelly Elementary School, the district has placed a “huge emphasis” on relationships with students this year. She said the effort includes “building that trusting relationship with students, so teachers definitely take that time to notice when students are starting to feel anxious or angry about something, or another emotion.”

Working with students in kindergarten through second grade at Kelly, Novacek puts “a huge emphasis on recognizing anxiety and anger, where they’re noticing it in their bodies, and how they can use their coping skills to manage those feelings.”

Since the pandemic struck, Novacek said she has not seen an increase in the incidences of behavioral problems, based on the data this year, but those trends would vary from school to school.

The Sources of Strength curriculum, which focuses on social connections, was introduced in all elementary schools for the first time this year. It has been “really positive” and beneficial in empowering kids, Novacek said. Data related to this curriculum is being collected on 1,022 students in grades 3-5 and will be reviewed at the end of this school year.

“It’s important to note that, even though this has been a hard and trying time, that our kids have really proven to be very resilient, and have continued to have a positive outlook,” she said.

A similar push occurred early in the pandemic in East Grand Forks. A trend emphasizing students’ mental health long predates the pandemic, and Brekke – the counselor at South Point Elementary – believes that as a result teachers, counselors and parents were better prepared to quickly address students’ anxieties.

Even in a normal year, now is about the time when teachers start seeing more interpersonal conflicts between friends, Brekke said, and she believes that will likely be exacerbated this year.

Last March, school districts in both cities had to swiftly respond to the pandemic.

Despite East Grand Forks School District staff coming up with resources to help students almost “overnight” last spring, Brekke said addressing gaps in students’ social and emotional learning has been far from easy, particularly in Minnesota. The Legislature significantly cut student social and emotional learning programs during the recession of the 2000s, leaving Minnesota school districts with some of the worst student-to-counselor ratios in the U.S.

Brekke is hopeful lessons learned during the pandemic will spur some change down the line.

Seclusion, separation

“I think, across the board, it is definitely more of a struggle for these students this year, and I think a lot of it has to do with just the seclusion and the separation,” said Melissa Buchhop, a fourth-grade teacher at Century Elementary School in Grand Forks.

“And for some of them, having a mask on all day and them not hearing things right could be an anxiety,” Buchhop said. At the elementary level, because of “the way we’ve had to do things this year, they don’t get to play with their classmates in other classrooms when they’re at school; they’re separated at lunch to eat. Some kids hardly leave their classroom during the day.”

In “normal” times, students would go to other specialists’ rooms to interact with teachers, in subjects such as music. This year, those teachers have been coming into their classroom, “so they’re confined to one room almost all day long,” she said.

“So they’re not getting to socialize and play together the way they normally get to. Those socialization skills and just playing are such important skills, and it’s a whole different ball game this year,” she said. “Yes, the academics are important – but that social-emotional piece is so huge, and can affect the academics.”

Buchhop, who also serves as president of the Grand Forks Education Association, and her colleagues “have talked more and more, especially this year, the social-emotional is so important for our kids to be successful.”

In addition to considering the academic losses, “we also need to look at how much socialization these kids have lost throughout this last year,” she said, “and if things are opening up this summer, those kids getting outside and playing with their friends and being in activities is going to be just as important, I think.”

Buchhop and other educators in Grand Forks are grateful that in-person learning has been in place for elementary and middle schools for most of this school year, she said. Except for 17 instructional days between Thanksgiving and Jan. 4, when students switched to remote learning, they have been learning face-to-face in the classroom.

Teaching students in-person “almost every single day since the start of school has been an advantage, which has really, I think, helped us accomplish a lot,” Buchhop said.

“I think if we would’ve been distanced for a good chunk of this year, we would be seeing something completely different right now.”