At End of a Difficult Year, Teachers Reflect on Student Mental Health Challenges

By Talia Traskos-Hart

The 2021-2022 Denver Public Schools academic year ended with around 60 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff members, a decrease of over 80% from early January, according to the district’s reporting.

While COVID cases declined over the year, teachers in DPS schools faced challenges beyond simply protecting the physical health of themselves and their students.

Bennet Spann, a language arts teacher at CEC Early College, called this year, his 17th as a teacher, “one of the most challenging years in my career as an educator.”

Oftentimes, Spann said, balancing the need to help students catch up academically with the emotional challenges of returning to the classroom posed a difficult feat.

“The beginning of the school year, there was an emphasis on making up for lost time. We kind of jumped straight into content, a little too emphatically,” Spann said. “We needed to work on giving students space to process being back at school and spend some time talking about how to interact with each other again.”

Alysia Ramos, who teaches 10th-grade math at North High School, said that re-building students’ comfort with the classroom setting was a high priority for teachers this year.

“The social component of being in school and being around people was something that students and staff struggled with,” Ramos said. “There was a focus on building relationships so that students and staff could get back into a group of 30 students.”

Socioemotional challenges for today’s teenagers have been documented nationwide. A study by JAMA Pediatrics in fall 2021 found a doubling of adolescent anxiety and depression from the pre-pandemic

At CEC Early College, to help with students’ socioemotional well-being, advisement periods were spent leading mindfulness exercises and working with students to manage anxiety, stress, and other mental health challenges.

Spann said that he expects many teachers to continue these exercises “as a daily practice”
next year.

Along with mental health support, Spann and Ramos noted that teachers and administrators have developed new techniques to help students keep up with classwork amid high absence rates and
the ensuing missed content.

To aid absent students, Ramos posted class recordings and study materials on Schoology, which she said helped students “learn the content at the same pace as if they were sitting in the classroom.”

Spann noted that increased online communication this year—through email, Schoology, or calls home—could be continued into the future to help maintain connection with struggling students.

“I think we’ll always have a certain percentage of students who struggle with attendance or struggle with engagement,” he said. “(Increased communication) is an opportunity to provide support to these students.”

Following these challenges, Ramos and Spann look to the fall with optimism. Spann said he feels “excited about next year, having gotten through the challenges of this year.”

Ramos said that a more comprehensive view of student-teacher relationships could be the most valuable lesson to be learned from this year’s difficulties.

“I really hope what (we) take away from this heartbreaking experience of the pandemic is seeing people as human before we see them as a person teaching, a person taking a test, or a person telling us the rules,” she said. “I hope our students and staff come out of this just really thinking about the human

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