Berkeley High School senior Annie Jay remembers a count on the board in one of her classrooms: 23 days since a student last pulled a fire alarm.
It became a running joke among students to expect an early release Friday afternoons as a result of students pulling the fire alarms, Jay added. This semester, Berkeley High had eight all-school evacuations due to fire alarms, at least six of which were caused by students pulling them unnecessarily, according to Berkeley High special education teacher Lydia Craighill.
Craighill added that with the full return to in-person learning this semester, Berkeley High has seen an increase in fights, vandalism, substance abuse and sexual harassment. Berkeley Unified School District could not be reached for comment as of press time.
Jenn Lynn-Whaley, a trauma educator who works with East Bay schools, said these instances of disruptive behavior and violence are expressions of “deeper pain” connected to pandemic trauma.
“More students than ever are struggling with emotional and behavioral issues, and more severely than ever before,” Craighill said in an email. “Our counselors tell me they have never seen so many students experiencing severe emotional issues like self-harm and suicide ideation.”
Isolation brings social conflict among students
An increased number of students from kindergarten through 12th grade are dealing with social, emotional and behavioral challenges since returning to campus in August, according to Lynn-Whaley.
Lynn-Whaley noted students faced new or exacerbated traumas during the 18 months of distance learning. These traumas, which include housing insecurity, domestic abuse, substance abuse and new caretaking responsibilities, have helped escalate conflict among students and between students and staff in Berkeley schools, Lynn-Whaley added.
Separation from peers during distance learning also had detrimental effects on students’ mental health, causing increased anxiety and difficulties with social interaction, according to Lynn-Whaley,
“So many kids had 18 months of very little structure, very little routine, very little support of people coming in and checking on them,” Lynn-Whaley said. “Even if it was good in the past, reinserting kids into that structure has been kind of a rough transition.”
Lynn-Whaley added the isolation precautions taken during the pandemic seem to have delayed emotional development for many students. She said middle school administrators she works with have noticed some students behaving in ways expected of elementary school students, such as pulling other students’ hair.
At Berkeley High, these behaviors have manifested in the form of physical fights, students who refuse to return to class from the hallways and theft or destruction of items such as soap dispensers, toilet paper and door handles, according to Craighill.
Craighill noted she was personally trapped in a bathroom after the door handle was removed this semester.
“Few students have access to supports to help them process their experiences over the 18 months of distance learning, and the result is that students are more volatile,” Lynn-Whaley said in an email. “All of our children are changed by what they’ve experienced.”
District struggles to fund mental health resources
While some schools provide mental health support through onsite counselors and external referrals, Lynn-Whaley said there is neither enough support for students and their families nor for staff and community members.
California is the country’s richest state, Craighill noted, but it ranks 41st in school funding per student. BUSD is also anticipating millions of dollars in budget cuts, which Craighill expects to exacerbate understaffing on campus.
“If these cuts go through, the results will be devastating,” Craighill said in the email.
Lynn-Whaley added schools received federal funding to increase onsite mental health services during the pandemic, but school districts low on personnel and other counseling infrastructure have been reluctant to use this money for long-term services.
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER I, is one such source of federal funding intended specifically to provide mental health resources for students. The program’s final installment in funding will be dispersed in 2024, which, according to Lynn-Whaley, has made it difficult for districts to grant any long-term contracts for direct services.
“(We need a) shift in orientation around how we fundamentally connect with students, conceptualize their education, and assess their learning such that relationships are prioritized so kids feel valued and connected, students have voice and choice in how they learn, and assessments are varied,” Lynn-Waley said in the email.
Lynn-Whaley said districts need to alter their budgets to prioritize supporting students’ emotional needs. This would include integrating social and emotional support into the curriculum, providing “wellness rooms” on campus and making sure students have access to counseling.
Loss of productivity was a challenge for students during distance learning, Lynn-Whaley added. She said expecting students to catch up to pre-pandemic learning targets is a source of anxiety for students and teachers alike.
“While it’s natural to compare year-over-year student achievement levels, it’s an enormous disservice to harness educators with the burden of catching all of their students up,” Lynn-Whaley said in the email. “(It is) unfair and unrealistic to expect students to buckle down and make up for 18 months of non-traditional learning.”
Teachers face staffing shortages, new responsibilities
In addition to taking on traditional academic responsibilities, Craighill said teachers are tasked with implementing COVID-19 safety measures. She added that staffing shortages have increased pressure on teachers, administrators and faculty to compensate for the labor typically shared among a larger group of staff.
Berkeley High math teacher Dan Plonsey noted staff has felt more tired since the return to campus than it would during a typical school year.
“We don’t know how much of our weariness is due to wearing the masks all day, how much concern about the school, and how much a general fear that as a country we’ve endured one crisis only to find ourselves entering a period of larger crisis on many levels,” Plosney said in an email.
Lynn-Whaley said teachers’ mental health is often overlooked, and administrators’ efforts to ease the stress on their staff do not always address systemic sources of this increased pressure. Many staff members have also experienced symptoms of trauma following pandemic isolation, she added.
Lynn-Whaley’s district opted to use ESSER I funds to provide expedited counseling services to teachers. The program was announced on a Monday, and by the following Thursday, all of the slots had been filled, with many teachers still left waiting for openings to expand.
“Not only are we dealing with more emotional and behavior issues, but we have fewer resources than usual to support our students in crisis,” Craighill said in the email. “We are operating with a skeleton crew in the midst of a global crisis, and it’s a recipe for disaster.”