By now, with the COVID-19 pandemic approaching the one-year mark, the impacts of extended quarantine on all ways of life have been well documented.

And no group may be more affected than the youngest members of society: children.

Virtual schooling has impeded not only academic learning in K-12 online classrooms, but the computer screen has built a barrier between students and teachers, and classmates and classmates. As a result, children are not getting the much needed social interaction that enables most of them to thrive.

Staring into screens all day also prevents students from fully noticing fellow classmates who might be struggling or at-risk. Students, according to Katherine Lee, school psychologist and assistant professor in residence at UNLV, are usually the most frequent reporters of mental health concerns. In turn, these concerns are then not being reported as readily to the school psychologist, who is usually the first line of defense — and a resource that many parents don’t know about.

“A lot of people don’t know what a school psychologist is, or what we do,” Lee said. “Sometimes people think we’re a counselor, or a social worker, or a teacher, and we’re not any one of those things. We are so much more.”

With the Clark County School District (CCSD) reopening schools on March 1 for pre-Kindergarten through third grade students — a milestone moment in a yearlong pandemic — Lee and CCSD school leaders want parents to know that school psychologists not only exist, but that they play an active and important role in their child’s life.

Here, Lee examines the role of a school psychologist, how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted what they can do, and suggests strategies for how schools can move forward once students step away from the computer screen and return to classrooms around the Vegas Valley.

What is a school psychologist and how important are they to K-12 schools in Nevada and across the country?

Generally, we’re the most highly educated and trained mental health professional in the K-12 school setting. In the past, school psychologists have been the testers — the ones who determine special education eligibility for students, students who have a suspected autism disability, ADHD, or another learning disability. That’s typically how people think of school psychologists, or they might not even know that a school psychologist is working in their child’s school.

In recent years, the breadth of our work has widened, and there’s a big focus on prevention and intervention strategies: academic intervention, behavioral intervention, suicide intervention, understanding threat assessment. We’re on teams where we consult with staff, teachers, and parents, and we encourage frequent family-school communication.

Awareness is key for parents, and I think it’s been really helpful that CCSD Superintendent  Jesus Jara is sharing the message that school psychologists, counselors, social workers are important. It’s great that he’s expressed his support to get more school psychologists trained and get them in the schools because it could be your kid, it could be your neighbor’s child, or your best friend’s kids who are at risk and need that support.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the vital role that school psychologists play in the lives of children?

Now that we’re not physically in schools, the work that we can do and should be doing has been severely impacted. We are usually walking around the school all the time: consulting, talking, observing, attending meetings, and working with students. And now, a lot of that work is done over virtual calls.

It’s been a challenge, for sure. Our ability to care for students has been compromised because we can’t physically see them. We’re not there. We can’t support teachers the same way. A virtual classroom is not the same as an in-person classroom, so it’s forced us to be a little more creative in what we can do. 

Has the virtual environment impacted the school psychologist’s ability to intervene when a child is at-risk of suicide or other mental health concerns?

When we’re talking pre-COVID, classmates see other classmates, teachers see their students in-person daily, and school psychologists are physically there. You can literally go to a classroom and pull a student if they’re at risk, if there’s talk of suicide or any ideation. 

And usually, it’s peers who are the ones to report fellow classmates. They’re the ones who go to an adult to say: “Hey, this person seems really sad and withdrawn,” or “Hey, my friend just failed this really important test and I’m concerned.” Every now and then you get the teacher who finds a note that the student wrote. But it’s usually the classmates who are being good citizens, and reporting concerns about their peers.

When that happens, there’s usually a small team that includes the school nurse, counselor, and psychologist who would interview the child, and do a crisis assessment. It’s a very structured, comprehensive process. A parent notification happens, and every now and then, the mobile crisis unit, or the police department gets involved. It depends on the level of severity. The worst-case scenario is when you have to involuntarily hospitalize a student, if the parent feels like they’re not able to maintain safety for the child at home. So, safety planning is a big part of what we do.

As you can imagine, this is much easier when you’re in person. If there’s an immediate crisis you can literally take the child from class and make sure that they’re physically safe with you. It’s more difficult to intervene effectively right now. There are crisis hotlines, and it is possible to talk with students in need, but there are certainly challenges.

Given that classmates play a critical role in alerting adults to concerns with fellow classmates, have parents or siblings had to step into that role throughout the past year given the virtual environment?

There are many different scenarios given that the home life for many students is so different right now. For some people, it’s worked out just fine, and it’s actually working better for some families. But I think for a lot of families it’s worse. Financial instability and work requirements force many parents to be away from home during school hours, leaving kids to do school on their own.

In some households, there might be a little bit of what’s called parentification, which is when a child has to assume the role of a parent. 

In that scenario, maybe the oldest sibling becomes over-parentified, and then they can’t go to school because they’re making sure their younger siblings are logging on OK, paying attention, and doing their homework. So I think there’s role-shifting going on, and there’s definitely added stress because of that.

Is there an increase in concerns around the mental health of students since the onset of the pandemic?

In terms of formal diagnoses, I don’t have that information, but parents are reporting increased anxiety. We’ve seen that trend in children in general over the past decade, because there’s a lot of pressures with academics, but also an increase in social media anxiety for children, too.

Parents are also reporting fluctuations in mood. I think that’s largely because there’s no longer structure for kids. I hear a lot of parents saying, “My kid’s not on a schedule anymore.”

School provides amazing structure, not just for your day — when you get up and go and come home and attend after-school — but for the entire school year. There are breaks, and school dances, and games, and certain milestones and events that stand out to students and mark the year for them. I think the disruption in schedule is part of what leads to sleep issues, which can lead to more difficulties with attention and mood regulation. And of course if they’re missing the social piece, too.

CCSD’s plan is to bring the youngest students back first. Are younger students having a more difficult time navigating the online environment? What will schools have to contend with once students are back in the classroom?

As humans, we’re not meant to sit still in front of a screen. A child’s development relies heavily on exploration and play. When children are young, it’s also important for them to learn about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable in terms of boundaries and behavior, and that’s made more difficult in a virtual environment.

You’ll often hear Kindergarten and first grade teachers ask their students to “get up and get your wiggles out!” Their bodies need to move, and it just takes on different forms as they get older, in terms of sports and extracurricular activities. That whole-body stimulation just doesn’t happen in front of a screen, in a chair.

At the same time, kids are very resilient and very adaptable. So once they get back to school in person, I think they’ll be OK. There’s just going to have to be a lot of systematic change and a particular focus on academic recovery. What do we do about this lost year? How do we bootcamp all of this information?

There’s going to be a lot of procedural change too. How do we identify if a kid is actually behind, now that we’ve lost this year? Hopefully schools can find a way to offer after-school tutoring for free, and I think it’d be great if we can keep classes to smaller sizes as well to give kids more attention. 

There’s also a greater focus on the mental health of youth, finding ways to better screen for students who might be at-risk and embed social and emotional learning into the curriculum. This means teaching students skills on how to cope, learning how to identify emotions and triggers, learning how to interact appropriately and socially with peers, and learning when they need to go get help and when they need a break.

Where can parents turn if they believe their child needs mental health support?

Parents can always go to their child’s pediatrician if they’re concerned. It can be really hard to sift through a list of therapists on your own, but your doctor can help direct you to someone.

If it’s an emergency situation, there’s a mobile crisis team that they can call. There’s also a place called The Harbor, which provides assessment and support for families in Clark County at no charge. And again, if they’re really at a loss for where to turn, talk to your child’s teacher, your child’s principal. And of course if there is an immediate, imminent, true threat then you call 911.

What advice can you offer parents to help mitigate concerns related to the virtual school environment and the overall challenges associated with a yearlong pandemic?

I want to encourage parents to be creative, and to seek support from other parents as much as possible. Ask how are you doing it? Or offer to meet up at a park and do some socially safe activities together. Seeing people in their full body and their full size, in their full form in a natural setting is going to be better developmentally, neurologically, socially, in all ways for children. So, if there’s some way that parents can make that happen, whether it’s going out to the park, or engaging in safe, outdoor sports or activities, I would encourage that.