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Thursday, Mar 23, 2023

Students need mental health support to cope with ‘new normal’ of school

Students need mental health support to cope with ‘new normal’ of school

Students are adjusting to an essentially new learning environment after years of Covid-19 restrictions, isolation and fears, which requires new thinking about support.
As full-day schooling resumes, albeit with daily rapid antigen tests for students, there is an opportunity to create a “new” normal for a post-Covid world. It would be a mistake to assume there can be a return to the “old” normal of examinations, weekly tests, homework, drilling, and the like. Students, some of whom last had full-day classes in 2020, are not the same ones returning to full-day classes now.

Some very young pupils have not known anything but face masks, Covid-19 tests, short school days and constant messaging about the dreaded virus. Older students have become used to interrupted education, online learning, the lack of social interaction, social distancing, the iAM Smart app, vaccine passes and vaccinations.

For all students, life has been disrupted. But now that there is an opportunity to return to “normal”, what should that look like?

International studies suggest that mental health issues are perhaps the most ubiquitous outcome of years of Covid-19 restrictions, isolation and living in fear.

Mental health is integral to well-being; the World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community”.

In a report released last December, the Australia government’s Productivity Commission examined the well-being of students (as well as teachers). This was an ongoing issue, particularly for vulnerable students, it said, but its importance had been highlighted by the experiences of Covid-19.

While the “long-term effects of the pandemic are not yet understood”, evidence is emerging that “the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have negatively affected the lives of many children and young people and resulted in an increase in mental ill-health”, it said.

But this is not just an Australian phenomenon. Back in 2020, a Mind HK report on the Hong Kong Mental Health Conference website pointed to the deleterious impact of Covid-19 restrictions on primary, secondary and university students here.

“Classes taught at home via teleconference have limited individualised academic and social support from teachers and classmates alike,” it said, pointing to the lack of social interaction for primary school students and the low morale of secondary students facing the annual Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) examinations with “less schooling, testing delays and possible re-marking”.

These student experiences may have been unavoidable given the severity of the Covid-19 virus and the need for strategies to mitigate its effects. Yet these experiences are very much part of the lives of many students returning to full-day schooling.

It will not be “business as usual” for schools in the post-Covid era. The new normal requires new ways of thinking about support for students who need to adjust once again to essentially a new learning environment.

The emphasis here is on “learning”. Issues related to well-being do not exist in isolation. Supporting well-being is not just about eliminating negative behaviour and attitudes.

Rather, it is about creating optimal conditions that support learning. Students who are disengaged or depressed, who experience feelings of isolation and lack a sense of belonging are unlikely to be capable of learning throughout the school day. If indicators of low levels of well-being are not identified by teachers, students will suffer, both emotionally and in terms of academic achievement.

Schools, therefore, need to make the development of student well-being the priority. This should be guided by a Hong-Kong-wide student well-being strategy that the Education Bureau should develop. Schools, guided by the principal, should develop well-being plans that set out improvement strategies to support students.

The Education Bureau should fund schools to ensure these strategies are properly implemented. Teacher educators need to prepare future teachers to be capable of identifying student well-being issues. Teachers also need to be equipped with the knowledge to refer their students to other professionals, such as social workers and education psychologists, where more support is needed.

There are few in our community who believe the post-Covid world will be easy. We owe it to our students to recognise that the return to full-day school will be no exception. Support needs to be in place to make the transition to the new normal as easy as possible for these pandemic-weary students.

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