Maine reported its first COVID-19 case on March 12, 2020. This was followed in December 2021 with the omicron variant. Currently, the B2 variant is spreading throughout our schools. When the vaccines arrived in spring 2021, there was a sense of hope that the challenges of the virus would be over. Nothing is further from the truth. As COVID fatigue continues, the challenges are real and nowhere do we see it more than in the mental health of both adults and students.

Becky Foley is superintendent of schools in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport-Durham-Pownal). She can be reached at [email protected]

The sense of community and being “in this together” that we had in the beginning completely reversed as individuals became exasperated and exhausted by the pandemic. Principal Jennifer Gulko from Freeport High School recently spoke at a forum where she reported that there was a shift in our school environment this year to students being more angry, more frustrated, more defiant and more apt to use substances. There is a loss of respect and community being felt everywhere with our students dealing with significant depression and anxiety. It has become harder and harder to access outside counseling services due to the high demand. Our principals report increased displays of immature behaviors by students. The students’ social skills have been significantly impacted by the separation and isolation caused by COVID.

Not only have we seen a decline in the mental health of students, but we are seeing the same struggles in adults. Despite the incredible perseverance our staff displayed over the past two years, we have seen their battles with mental wellness impact their ability to navigate the multitude of daily demands. They comment about feeling that they are drowning as they try to manage their students and their own personal lives.

One only needs to tune into a board meeting anywhere in the United States to see parents displaying similar struggles with mental health. Parents’ frustrations are cloaked in conversations over masking policies, critical race theory and book banning.

Our children are watching our actions closely. Students are observing adults with less patience, less respect and more frustration. This is being manifested in interactions with staff and peers. As this continues, the mental health of our students is deteriorating. The constant pressure of worrying about getting sick, being sick and watching adults struggle, while simultaneously trying to stay on track academically and socially, is a lot for our children to navigate. Students who have had three of four years in high school have been directly impacted by COVID. For some of these students, they are in an incredibly delicate and unstable mental state as they transition to college or the workforce.

As a community, we need to reclaim our fortitude in the midst of these COVID challenges. In order to best serve our students, we must move beyond existing in survival mode and continue to learn and grow. Our collective fortitude is critical in helping our students and staff build their capacity in dealing with the challenges of COVID.

Now more than ever, it is critical that we listen and learn from one another. Both parents and staff must demonstrate strong leadership for our students to thrive. We set the tone each and every day. We need to model kindness, compassion, grace and perseverance with each other. This is an opportunity for us to discover better ways to support mental health needs at all levels. Our children will learn how to emerge stronger through adversity by observing the adults in their lives working together and showing compassion to one another.

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