Shared from the 3/8/2021 Mon Valley Independent eEdition

Hearing examines student issues brought on by remote learning

Social and academic problems have occurred since schools were closed due to COVID-19.


Submitted State Rep. Nick Pisciottano, D-West Mifflin, was chairman for a state House Democratic Policy Committee hearing last week concerning the mental health of students amid the pandemic.

State Rep. Nick Pisciottano, D-West Mifflin, last week heard from school leaders and counselors, mental health professionals and others who say the pandemic and remote learning have impacted the mental health of students.

Pisciottano served as chairman of the state House Democratic Policy Committee’s round-table discussion on improving mental health for high school students.

In a virtual setting Wednesday, the representative from the 38th District, which includes the Mon Valley communities of Dravosburg, Glassport, Liberty and Port Vue, brought together school professionals, mental health advocates, human services professionals and legislators for a discussion on how resources can be allocated to better serve Pennsylvania students.

In a post on the 38th District website, Pisciottano said that “strengthening teachers and support staff was a natural part of that discussion, which highlighted how the pandemic has exacerbated existing systemic issues with providing services to students, teachers and staff.”

Local representatives participating in the hearing were Dr. Michael Ghilani, superintendent of the West Jefferson Hills School District, and Laverne Krill, a school counselor for the West Mifflin Area School District.

Ghilani and Michael Fiore, school social worker/home and school visitor for Council Rock School District, shared the struggles students face and their efforts to make swift changes to policies and procedures that have had lifesaving impacts on students.

Ghilani said West Jefferson Hills middle and high school students have spent a large portion of the pandemic attending school in a hybrid model.

First, they attended two days per week, then three days and recently they transitioned to five days a week in person.

“At the middle school and high school in particular, especially when we were in the hybrid model, it was a pretty depressing scene,” the superintendent said. “Students really were reluctant to talk, interact. Whether it was because of the low numbers that were in the building. The fact that the masks made it difficult to interact. It was a pretty sad scene.”

He said the district had a mental health program in place prior to the pandemic, and mental health resources were available to students in person or virtually during the pandemic.

Ghilani said the district has a partnership with Allegheny Health Network that has resulted in two therapists being available to students in each school building, in addition to school counselors and social workers.

“What we’ve seen with our school-based mental health program is we have almost triple the number of students involved in that program than we did two years ago,” he said, adding that school counselors are overwhelmed and alarmed with the number of mental health cases they are tending to.

The superintendent said students are experiencing heightened issues with depression and anxiety, and shared a tragic case of a student who committed suicide while COVID-19 forced schools to close. “We had a student prior to the holiday break, a high school student, take their own life,” Ghilani said. “Since we’ve been back, we had two other students attempt suicide.” He said “countless” other students have “disconnected because of depression, anxiety and we’ve had a few others with suicide ideations.” “From a mental health perspective, our students are in great crisis,” he said, later adding that he finds the situation “disheartening” from the perspective of someone who’s been an educator for more than 25 years.

“This has had, really a detrimental impact on kids,” he said, later adding that his wife is a teacher at another area school district and that “she’s seeing the same things at her district.”

Krill affirmed the increase in mental health concerns, especially with students in upper elementary and middle school levels at West Mifflin.

“What we have seen across the board is many, many things that are causing anxiety in our students and have trickled down into their ability to be successful academically,” she said. “At the beginning, it was resisting the technology.”

Krill said there were issues because younger students were not used to using technology for school work, and other students have struggled with other problems related to technology.

She said there have been students who resisted being seen on webcam during synchronous learning, which gives them the chance to interact with their teachers and the class in real time.

“They didn’t want to show their faces,” Krill said. “Whether they didn’t want to show where they lived, or they just were afraid of being judged or they were just insecure about their academics because they felt so far behind all year long.”

Krill also noted that prior to the pandemic, she would have to deal with “peer conflicts” on a nearly daily basis.

“This year it’s been nonexistent” she said. “I worry about that because kids have to learn how to deal with conflict resolution and how to deal with conflict and problem-solving skills.

“We’re not getting any of that this year. They don’t have the opportunity.”

Krill said food insecurity, economic worries because of job loss within their household and grief have each put a weight on students. “Many of our families have lost family members to COVID, so we’ve had a lot of grief with parents and children,” she said.

Christina Paternoster, project director at Pennsylvania Parent & Family Alliance, testified that parents are scared and children are struggling. She also highlighted rural communities have limited social supports as waiting lists for services remain long.

Dr. Perri Rosen with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services shared that statewide data on the pandemic’s impact on student health is still being compiled and assessed, but highlighted student assistance programs and collaborative efforts with community liaisons, DHS and the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs to connect students and families with community and state services.

When asked for potential solutions, Keith Elders of the Pennsylvania Peer Support Coalition pitched a creative mobile element that could connect students, allowing them to engage with one another — including over the summer — on a platform they are already comfortable with.

In a press release, the Democratic Police Committee said it will continue to work with community partners, state agencies and school and mental health professionals to aggregate resources and develop innovative solutions for the well-being of Pennsylvania’s children and the professionals responsible for their education.

“Today was a tough day hearing the struggles our educators are facing every day in schools across the state,” Pisciottano said after the hearing. “Growing up is hard — even more so now during the age of social media. We have to prioritize school funding for mental health services to counter the troubling decline in student mental health.”

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