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The eighth grade student came to school counselor Lydia McNeiley on the second day of school with a request: Was there a way he could be excused from gym class?

For nearly a year and a half, the student, along with about 80% of his peers at Charles N. Scott Middle School in Hammond, Indiana, learned remotely.

Back inside the building for the first time since March 2020, he felt overwhelmed. Gym, once a class this young footballer had enjoyed, seemed noisy – a radical departure from the quiet of his home where he had logged into online classes while mourning the loss of a grandmother and d ‘uncle because of the coronavirus.

McNeiley, the school’s senior counselor and grade eight counselor, had spent her summer thinking about how to make it easier for students to return to school property when they returned on August 18. or maybe an art class.

Lydia McNeiley.Lydia McNeiley

“We’re just proactive and doing what’s best for the students,” McNeiley said, adding that it was evident in the first two days that many other students were also feeling anxious. “I think gradually things will get better, but it’s going to be a process.”

Schools across the country are trying to find the best way to help distance learners re-acclimatize to physical classrooms.

From tours or virtual tours of the building before school starts to red carpet deployments on the first day of school, educators have found creative ways to make students feel as comfortable as possible – even as the coronavirus threatens. to upset another school year.

Schools have their work cut out for them.

NBC News spoke to parents across the United States whose children have returned to in-person learning for the first time in recent weeks. All said their children were thrilled to be back, but the transition took a toll on them in different ways, from a high school girl exhausted by her return to an elementary student so thrilled he couldn’t stand still, which caused an email to her mom from her teacher.

There does not appear to be any national data available on the number of children who have been distance learning since the start of the pandemic and are just returning to school in person. But with fewer schools offering an e-learning option this year than last year, many students are returning – some against their will or that of their parents, as concerns grow about the delta variant. very contagious.

“We know our students are nervous,” said Tinisha Parker, chair of the board of the American School Counselor Association. “There has been a lot of effort to generate enthusiasm. “

At public schools in Gwinnett County, Georgia, where Parker is the executive director of student services, the district has tried to make the first day of school as festive as possible. At one school, students were greeted by a group, cheerleaders and a red carpet as they got off the bus.

“They had confetti. They gave it their all, ”Parker said. “We missed our teachers and teachers, our kids too, so it was really a party.”

Tackling a pre-pandemic problem

American schools have had inadequate mental health resources and staffing problems for years. The national average of students per school counselor for the 2019-2020 school year, the most recent data available, was 424 students to 1 counselor, well above the ratio of 250 to 1 recommended by the American School Counselor. Association.

The pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to address children’s mental health. Since the start of the pandemic, an estimated 43,000 children have lost a parent to Covid-19. Isolation has caused depression in some adolescents. And the proportion of mental health-related emergency room visits increased in 2020 for young children and adolescents compared to the previous year.

Schools across the country are responding. In Oklahoma, where some schools do not have a single school counselor, the state Department of Education awarded $ 35.7 million in grants using federal relief funds to 181 school districts to hire more than school counselors and mental health professionals.

Starting this fall in New York City, there will be voluntary, confidential school-based screening for all K-12 students to identify students in distress, trauma, or other needs. in mental health.

And in Kansas, some districts will work with community mental health centers to provide services to students on campus during school hours, according to the Associated Press.

At the Indiana school where McNeiley works, she and two other school counselors offer small support groups for children with anxiety or grief. Rapid mental health checks are done via an online form twice a week for all students. And the school day begins with mindfulness exercises and breathing techniques, McNeiley said.

“We know that our families have trauma, suffer trauma. “

This is especially important for their student body, which faces additional challenges in addition to the pandemic, McNeiley said. Almost 80 percent of students are entitled to a free or reduced price lunch depending on the economic situation of their family. Some did their lessons remotely in a closet because they couldn’t find other quiet places in their homes. Others couldn’t log on at all because they had to babysit younger siblings while their parents, essential workers, went to work.

“We know our families have trauma, go through trauma,” McNeiley said. “We put the mental health of students first.

Elsewhere, students slowly adjust to returning to class. Lisa Akin, an artist from Naperville, Ill., Kept her 9-year-old, Brody, at home for distance learning last year, fearing he might be exposed to Covid-19. This year, with no distance learning option, Brody returned to school on August 18, telling his mother the day before that he was “really excited” to go back.

Lisa Akin with her son Brody.Lisa Akin

This excitement led him to struggle with the rules of the classroom. At the end of the first day, his teacher kindly emailed Akin to let him know that Brody had struggled to sit in his place and remain silent in class.

“It was just a little rambunctious to be there,” Akin said. “He hasn’t stood still for 18 months.

She added that she hoped schools would consider incorporating breaks to help students readjust to sitting in a classroom for hours at a time, and perhaps allowing children to have spinners. restless or something else to channel their energy into listening to their teachers.

In Hacienda Heights, Calif., Evette Kelley-Victoria’s 17-year-old daughter, honors student Anne Kelley Johnson, was also excited to be returning to school. She had chosen a new backpack for her senior year and woke up early on the first day, August 4, to put on her outfit and makeup.

Evette Kelley-Victoria with her daughter Anne.Evette Kelley-Victoria

The return to school went well – Anne was happy to see her friends – but by the second week, adjustment fatigue caught up with her. She chose to stay home for a few days, Kelley-Victoria said.

“It all took its toll on her,” she said.

In Omaha, Nebraska, Cindy Maxwell-Ostdiek’s three children, ages 12, 13 and 15, returned to school on August 11 and love to be back with their classmates and teachers. But masks are optional in their school district, and while they are wearing them, they are in the minority. Everyone in the family is happy that the kids are back to school and back to extracurricular activities, but they are constantly worried that their classrooms will be closed again if someone tests positive for the coronavirus.

Cindy Maxwell-Ostdiek’s children Luke, Grace and Johnathan on their first day of school. They are part of a minority of students who choose to wear masks in class.Cindy Maxwell Ostdiek

“We are crossing our fingers,” said Maxwell-Ostdiek.

Back at Scott Middle School in Indiana, the eighth-grade student who had asked not to go to the gym began to settle into in-person learning. Instead of going to the gym, he does engineering and technology, which he loves.

He and a few other students mentioned to McNeiley that lunchtime is another source of unease; as a result, the school is now staggering lunch times so that students eat in small groups, making the cafeteria less crowded. McNeiley continues to look for other ways to help his students rehabilitate.

“It’s not perfect,” she said, “but we tackled one thing at a time, one day at a time.”

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