For Some Kids, Distance Learning Is Rough. For Others It's Excruciating

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Jay Gupta says his twins, Anakin and Kenley, have struggled with loneliness during the pandemic, but the isolation has been much more acute for his daughter.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As a toddler, Kenley Gupta stopped speaking after her mom died. Over the years, she recovered from the anxiety disorder, called mutism, but in March went silent again, at the age of 8.

The mood change occurred soon after her school shut down.

Normally a social butterfly and a good student, after the pandemic forced the school to adopt full-time distance learning, Kenley often crumpled into a ball and hid under her blanket, clutching Green Guy, her favorite stuffed animal. Most of the time she refused to talk. The few words she did utter were expressed in her stuffy’s cartoon voice.

Instead of logging onto Zoom for classes, she spent much of the day gaming, glued to a hot pink iPad. She also stopped drawing and started to eat more.

“There was a kind of almost compulsive snacking that I had never seen before,” said Jay Gupta, Kenley’s dad.

Kenley said she was "really shocked" when her school closed.

"I was really sad I couldn’t see my friends,” she explained.

As a single dad, Jay is struggling, too. He's trying to juggle his job as a philosophy professor and keep Kenley’s twin brother, Anakin, on track as well. Anakin despises distance learning as much as his sister does.

“I much prefer real school because I’m an energy boy,” he said. “Home school, I just sit on the couch and say blaah.”

Though Anakin’s mental health hasn’t declined during the lockdown, the 8-year-old did fall behind in his school work as the months passed.

“I really felt like I was out at sea,” said his father. “At some point, I gave up.”


Alarming Trends

Even before the coronavirus hit, mental health problems like depression and anxiety were on the rise in children from ages 6 to 17, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research shows social isolation can make these symptoms worse.

On stressful days Kenley and Anakin Gupta jump on their trampoline at their home in Oakland.
On stressful days, Kenley and Anakin Gupta jump on their trampoline at their home in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge)

Currently there’s little hard data about how the pandemic is affecting children’s mental health, mostly because the outbreak is still unfolding and research takes time. The little that scientists have measured is worrisome.

A national survey conducted in late April and early May of 3,300 high school students found nearly a third reporting they were unhappy and depressed "much more than usual" in the past month. Almost 51% said they felt a lot more uncertainty about the future as well.

Overseas, in a survey of 1,143 parents measuring the effects of the lockdowns in Italy and Spain, nearly 86% reported changes in their children such as difficulty concentrating and spending more time online and asleep, and less time engaging in physical activity. A study of 2,330 schoolchildren in China after a month of sheltering in place reported that anxiety more than doubled the rates found in previous surveys of the age group.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence, at least, to corroborate these findings.

“We see high levels of anxiety,” said Saun-Toy Trotter, a psychotherapist at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland. “High levels of depression.”

Her school based clinic recorded more youth suicide attempts in the first four weeks of the pandemic than it did in the entire previous year, she says.

“They’re giving up hope,” Trotter said. “There's nowhere to go. There's nothing to do. There's nothing to connect with. There’s just deflatedness.”

Trotter advises parents to check in often with their kids, listen closely and set routines. And to remember self-care.

“Give yourself as much permission as possible to relax,” she said. “Rest. Reset. Restore.”

Schools and community organizations are also learning how to support students through virtual events, telehealth sessions and socially distanced activities. Trotter cites the working farm at Castlemont High School in Oakland.

“There are students who garden there three days a week growing kiwis and red peppers," she said.

She quoted one teen who was looking on the bright side. "‘If it weren’t for COVID, I wouldn’t be sticking my hands in the dirt for the first time,'” she said.

Finding Resilience

The Gupta family turned a corner over the summer when the twins enrolled in a daily outdoor camp. Within weeks Kenley rebounded and was back to her old self.

“It is notable that her mood took a 180,” Jay said. “She’s a different person.”

The increased social interaction paved the way for a soft landing when the twins returned to distance learning in the fall. An art therapist recently inspired Kenley to start sketching again.

She still sulks, battling a kind of internal silent storm, but her father is discovering new ways to help her cope. If someone in the family sits next to Kenley during Zoom classes, she pays closer attention, for instance. Just the simple presence of someone familiar keeps her anchored.

Jay looks forward to the day when Kenley is supported by her teachers in person again.

"I'm all for opening the schools," he said, as long as its done safely.