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Weighing mental v. physical health risks as some districts return to in-person, others go online

Doctors say student health will suffer either way
360 remote learning.jpg
Posted at 11:15 PM, Aug 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-14 09:23:47-04

DENVER -- With so much attention being paid to physical health these days, what about the mental health risks of kids not being in school in-person? Are we risking their long-term mental well-being?

Experts agree there’s very low transmission rate among children, although they are not immune.

In this 360 report, we’ll examine how there are no easy answers and there is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution.

There’s little doubt, classroom settings provide the structure, stability and support students need to achieve.

“Kids are highly social,” said Dr. Justin Ross, clinical psychologist and adjunct faculty in the Center for Integrated Medicine at UCHealth. “We all are. But kids especially – they thrive on social environments.”

COVID-19 has disrupted those social connections in ways we’ve never seen before.

“Human contact is important and I think for the first time in many years, many decades – we are seeing the consequences of them not having that social interaction,” said Dr. Monica Uppal, pediatric psychiatrist at The Medical Center of Aurora’s Behavioral Health and Wellness Center.

Many psychology experts agree there is no easy way to move forward.

“Minimizing stress and minimizing mental health problems across the whole family is a priority,” said Angela Narayan, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

“It’s very hard to be on one side or the other of this debate,” Uppal said.

“Really, what we’re trying to do is keep ourselves physically separate,” Ross said. “And yet, we need to maintain social connection and social interaction. Kids are missing out on regular activities, regular extracurriculars, regular in-school connections.”

Ross and others say you shouldn’t leave kids in the dark about these huge decisions – whether they are going back to class or starting with online learning.

“They need adults to explain to them clearly in a way that they can understand,” Narayan said.

“You want to talk simply,” Uppal said. “You want to talk in a very age-appropriate manner. You want to reassure them.”

As this pandemic becomes more protracted, there’s no question among experts the mental health risks will multiply.

“There is no health without mental health,” Ross said.

And that brings us to students, like Arya Nandyal, a junior at Peak to Peak High School.

“I feel like one of the biggest parts is just keeping connected with friends,” Nandyal said.

He and other students like Maliah Clark and Gabriella Hempelmann all participated in a summer internship program in Broomfield, which they say helped their mental health.

“We all kind of talk through it together,” said Clark, a senior at Broomfield High School. “Just keeping in contact with you friends is really important. We made plans to call each other regularly.”

And when it comes to in-person learning versus online this fall, Hempelmann says it’s a no-brainer for her.

“Personally, I would love to go back because online school was harder to connect with the curriculum,” Hempelmann said.

Knowing the risks of being out of school, Kaiser Permanente is making $1.5 million in mental health funds available immediately to five Front Range school districts, with $300,000 in grants going to each district.

“The need is urgent,” said Ellen Weaver, director of community health and engagement at Kaiser Permanente. “I have two school children myself. It’s impacting every family that I’m aware of.”

The money can be used by teachers and staff to help mentor and treat over-stressed students.

“There are just so many added stressors on students,” Weaver said. “On families, teachers and staff; and it’s more important than ever for that to be a part of the conversation when we’re talking about health in our school communities.”

Teachers like Steve Smith already know it’s going to be a rough semester.

“The notion that kids are automatically safer at home isn’t necessarily true for all students,” said Smith, a 6th through 8th grade special needs teacher at Denver’s Lake Middle School.

He and others at his school worry about kids in unstable, underserved homes and communities.

“Over three out of five of our kids are either in government housing, homeless or in foster care,” Smith said. “We know they’re eating less because they don’t get the free breakfast, the free lunch. We know that abuse rates are up.”

Parents like Renee Vasquez, who works for a local hospital, say the mental health toll is already real. Her straight A daughter struggles with online learning.

“They’re losing out on an education and they’re not learning that way,” Vasquez said. “Too much stress for the kids. Too much stress for us parents because we have to jump in there. And as parents who have the 9 to 5 work schedule, it’s hard.”

The doctors say physical and mental health are not mutually exclusive.

“Our psychological safety and our psychological well-being requires physical safety first-and-foremost,” Ross said.

“While studies do show kids are less-likely to contract the virus, there’s still that risk,” Uppal said. “There has to be a balance.”

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.