Students at the Tufenkian School prior to the COVID-19 era

Mental Health In COVID-19 Classrooms: Seeking Healthy Ways for Remote Schooling

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By Ani Duzdabanyan-Manoukian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

GLENDALE/PASADENA — Talar A. is in second grade. She was one of the 26,000 students in the Glendale Unified School District (GUSD) who never went back to school last March after the spring break. COVID-19 forced the students all around the world (about 1.3 billion according to UNESCO) to replace their school desks with tables in their living room, kitchen or dining room. In May, the school year ended remotely with no probability of in-person learning in the new academic year.

In Talar’s case it was more challenging: Talar has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit disorder. Learning through a 21-inch computer screen forced Rita, Talar’s mother, to summon up all the creativity she could. “She was confused and kept asking me why she doesn’t see her friends and saying she wanted to go back to school. Asking a child, who is already overwhelmed in a classroom setting, to follow a Zoom class is very difficult, especially early on in the process, when everyone lacked the necessary skills and it was hard to control constant interruptions and simultaneous speaking,” remembers Rita. She decided to hire someone to supervise Talar the entire time, which caused a huge financial burden. In addition, her three-year-old twins required a lot of attention.

On July 17 California governor Gavin Newsom announced that schools statewide will start the new school year remotely. Some exceptions were made for essential worker, homeless and foster care families, as well as all those in need of child care. School campuses were set up as learning pods, giving these families the opportunity to participate in the curriculum in a socially distanced setting. For Talar this is the perfect setting. She has a one-on-one aide who assists her the entire time. She has the assistance she needs while she is surrounded by other students. Schools have also found better ways of providing services such as occupational therapy and speech therapy. “Although these services are not ideal and quite as effective as they used to be, the learning pod setting is lot better than what I would get out of her at home,” mentions Rita.

In the Glendale Unified School District, about 10 percent of the students (around 2,600) have a learning disability or are enrolled in the Individualized Education Program (IEP).

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According to Dr. Armine Gharpetian, president of the GUSD Board of Education, “Glendale Unified has been very successful in providing vast resources for all of their students. We have a very diverse community with a very diverse background: special aid students, foster and homeless youth, English learners, and students in a FLAG [Foreign Language Academies of Glendale] program. This is the variety of things that we offer to our students and at the same time we try to do everything remotely by offering all the available resources. Obviously, it is a very challenging task for us.”

During the summer, the district conducted different surveys with the parents, teachers and students which helped develop the program for the new school year. According to the survey, the students wanted more time with teachers. They needed more textbooks, and some of them needed a private space to learn, a better environment at home. All this information guided the teachers to adopt new approaches when teaching on Zoom.

“We call it a gradual release: We don’t want to put our kids in a situation where they are uncomfortable, but we can certainly help them. For those who have a particular reason not to turn on the camera because their background is not the one that they want to share, or they feel uncomfortable about the way they look (one kid told me ‘My forehead is too big on the camera. I don’t want to show it.’), we try to work with the family and the student. We certainly don’t want to embarrass them; we have to build up their confidence over time and bring it to a level where they can become a more active participant. Turning the camera on also gives them the opportunity to build relationships with their teacher and piers. Part of this is also building a friendship even though it’s virtual,” shares GUSD superintendent Dr. Vivian Ekchian.

 

Glendale Unified School District Student Wellness Services is keeping close contact with the families who didn’t log in or have been absent in the remote classrooms. In order to facilitate communication during the summer, the district recruited many interns who can connect with the parents in their native language. “We are asking the families what their needs are, if the students feel depressed, upset, or isolated. If the answer is yes, we provide resources and counseling therapy,” says Dr. Ilin Magran, GUSD Student Wellness Services Director. Like the educational process, counseling is being conducted remotely as well.

Ensuring students’ mental health during the remote learning process has been and still is a new and challenging task for private schools as well. St. Mary’s Richard Tufenkian Preschool and Kindergarten in Glendale for the first time in its 45 years of history needed to come up with a new strategy to keep young children, ages 3-6, busy on the other side of the screen. School principal Arsine Aghazarian is certain that creating an interactive and fun learning environment is the key aspect for young children.

For the new school year, it is using Elmo document cameras and projectors to recreate the actual classroom-like atmosphere for the students. The camera moves with the teacher whenever she goes and even shows the book when the story is being read. Hands-on activities are very important for learning at this age and the school has a huge box full of materials that goes to each student to be used later during the remote class. “Children can do many, many things. We just need to give them the tools and trust them that they will succeed,” says Aghazarian.

. Pre-COVID St. Gregory Hovsepian School activities

St. Gregory Alfred and Marguerite Hovsepian School in Pasadena has a handful of students with Individualized Education Programs (IEP). School principal Shahe Mankerian was surprised to find out that they didn’t experience any specific difficulties with the remote learning. In fact, one of the third-grade students even gained some benefits from it by being able to focus more on his lessons at home setting compared to classroom.

Some other students without IEPs started to “fall apart” without the social aspect. After monitoring the student’s behavior, the school psychologists started to work closely with the teachers, students and the parents to find better strategies.

In the new school year armed with more experience and training, the school will conduct more social emotional assessments. In the first two weeks the psychologists will have separate sessions with the students in groups and individually if needed.

St. Gregory Hovsepian school lost students during the remote learning. Mankerian thinks that the parents didn’t believe that the school’s constantly implemented “love and logic” strategy will be enough to guide their children through the pandemic. “Nothing has been changed: we still need to be the teachers. I don’t think the roles have changed. Yes, we need to be in the classroom with the kids, but we also need to understand that our kids are capable of learning remotely. Sometimes they know even more than we do; they will never panic when the computer crashes,” Mankerian says, smiling during our remote interview.

Glendale Unified School District is one of the only school districts in the Los Angeles area that decided to reconsider in-person learning some time during the school year. The Board of Education and the superintendent agreed to revisit the school reopening after a couple of months of full distance learning. “Of course, we need to get the green light from the Public Health Department. At this moment, all our schools are ready to bring students back to the classrooms in person, hybrid [style], or in any other way. It breaks my heart that we are asking our kids, especially those who have a learning disability, to interact with their teachers and classmates remotely,” Gharpetian hopefully exclaimed.

When schools reopen, GUSD will follow all the safety guidelines it is doing now with learning pods in all 20 elementary school campuses. I couldn’t help asking how these kids were doing with the face mask on all day long. Ekchian has her observations ready: “They are physically distanced, playing, having lunch together, building a friendship. Wearing a mask wasn’t an issue at all. It seems like a new normal for them and I am so proud of our kids.”

“And knock on wood, so far we didn’t have any outbreak. That’s definitely something to celebrate,” states Gharpetian.

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