Mental health professional Susan Arnold knew that her students at Blooming Prairie High School would need increased support during COVID-19. However, she didn’t realize at first that so many of them were essential workers — adding another layer of stress to their experience during the pandemic.
“I went in a little bit blindly, thinking that kids would need support with school work, distance learning and the loss of traditional end-of-year activities,” said Arnold. “In the process of touching base with them, it became obvious really quickly that a lot of these teens are essential workers … they have a lot more to worry about than just their schooling.”
An employee of the South Central Human Relations Center in Owatonna, Arnold has worked in Blooming Prairie since 2015 as a school-linked mental health therapist — meeting with roughly 30 students on a regular basis. Of the teens that she continues to see virtually, she said a large number work in grocery stores, big-box stores and even nursing homes in the community.
“Everyone was so focused on how we could get the learning done, that it was forgotten that there’s a whole other piece to their lives that could include work,” she added. “A lot of [students] were experiencing a new feeling of stress and it was hard to pin down, why they were feeling so stressed. They still had school, their parents were home more often, they still had jobs.”
In an attempt to verbalize what they were experiencing, Arnold added that many students saw their jobs as something they were going to do and something that they needed to do. Owatonna High School counselor Tami Langlois seconded this, saying it seems the number of student workers has grown slightly in recent years due to necessity.
“Our kids have more responsibilities,” she added, “and sometimes it does mean holding a job to help support their own families or to help pay for college.”
New responsibilities during pandemic
In her role as counselor, Langlois said she provides both college and career advice, as well as social and emotional support when classes are in session. During the past month-and-a-half of distance learning, she added the social-emotional component has skyrocketed. Since late March, she estimated that the number of students she’s been working with has nearly doubled, due to an uptick in interest and outreach by the counseling department during the pandemic.
Of the teens she works with, Langlois said that likely just under half hold jobs outside of school, although she hasn’t had many discussions with essential student workers this spring. The one conversation that sticks out in her mind was a student who has been seeing his hours increase as other employees are unable or unwilling to come in to work — something he sees as a positive, but which has made it more difficult to balance his job with distance learning.
Nancy Williams, Owatonna High School school social worker, said she is currently working with a number of teens who are still on the job. Although many tend to work in retail and food service, she said older students also regularly get jobs in nursing homes and care facilities.
“I was visiting with a student who said, ‘It’s hard for me as a worker to watch elderly people pass away in our care facility with no relatives around. We’re the people that have to be there in their place,’” she recalled, noting that the death wasn’t pandemic-related. “An 18-year-old student is taking the place of a daughter or a granddaughter, because the family can’t be there.”
Students who are living with older or at-risk relatives have been feeling additional pressure, Williams added, saying that concern for grandparents or especially vulnerable family members is mentioned frequently by teens.
Guidance scarce in unprecedented time
An additional challenge, according to Williams, is the fact that older adults don’t have much guidance to offer on a situation that’s unprecedented in recent history. Having worked in the district for almost 30 years, she added that staff members haven’t been in a situation like this before either, making it harder to let students know what the future might hold.
“We do that a lot with kids, especially as they’re entering adulthood, help them figure out what their next steps are,” she said. “We’re typically able to walk them through the transition, having helped kids through it year after year … but we’re stuck in this place right now where they’re looking for adults to give them reassurance and answers, and there’s so much we don’t know ourselves.”
Arnold added that the lack of recent precedent for COVID-19 has also had a direct impact on students in the workforce. “They’re being asked to consider some things that even adults don’t have an answer for,” she added, of decisions that need to be made around personal protective equipment and worker safety.
While many students take jobs out of necessity, she added that for some it’s also a fun way to meet new people and connect with friends. Now, Arnold said, that enjoyable aspect of a first job has disappeared. While trying to help teens through the added stress of being a student and an essential worker, Arnold said it has been helpful to reframe their role at work.
“They saw it more as, they’re going to do what they need to do, and less as they’re making a huge sacrifice for their community,” she said. “Once we were able to reframe it so they could see how much they were actually doing, it shifted the anxiety a little bit.”
Still, counselors say the trauma of the pandemic — and of needing to report to work in-person during COVID-19 — will be something that is hard for many teens to move on from, especially those who have already experienced trauma in their lives.
“There’s definitely been an uptick in some anxiety and depression symptoms,” said Williams. “For kids that already struggle with mental health-related symptoms and other life factors that are difficult — including chemical health issues or poverty or abuse within their homes — you’ve just added more and more trauma to their lives, that will be harder for them to rise above and move on from.”
During the pandemic, school counselors, social workers and mental health professionals continue to check in regularly with students via email and video call. Despite the obstacles, Langlois said she is proud of her colleagues and the work that they’re doing to try and alleviate some of the distance learning pressure on teens who are having to adapt to a variety of new challenges.
“I’m proud of our district and how teachers continue to be so incredibly supportive of students,” she added, “but I’m mostly proud of our students for doing something so challenging.”