By Jenelyn Russo     11/5/2020

In a time when terms such as Zoom and online instruction dominate the education conversation, a newer subject has been emerging in recent weeks that spotlights another aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic that is having a noticeable impact on children and adolescents, even more so than the virus itself – the issue of social and emotional wellness.  

A story that appeared in TIME magazine’s August 3, 2020 issue referenced a study published in JAMA Pediatrics on a sample group of 2,330 school children in the Hubei province of China, where the pandemic originated. After one month of lock down, 22.6% of the children reported depression symptoms, while 18.9% said they experienced anxiety. 

When schools in the United States transitioned to distance learning last March, a significant part of most children’s normal routine was upended. And as the weeks of physical separation from teachers, friends and classmates turned into months, many kids felt the mental effects. 

“We were all sad about it,” says St. Norbert Catholic School 8th grader Catie Allen. “It was difficult at first, and the teachers were trying to adjust, just as we were.” 

St. Bonaventure Catholic School 8th grader Clara Wickwire says she was surprised at how quickly this significant change came about. 

“I was kind of sad that our year was all of a sudden interrupted,” says Wickwire. “We were completely isolated. We couldn’t see our friends or our teachers. We thought it would only be for two weeks, and turns out it was the rest of the year.” 

As the end of the school year blended into the summer months, many Orange County Catholic school families saw that while distance learning was mostly successful, their children were eager to safely return to campus. 

“It was the ‘touch and the feel’ of the classroom that they yearned for,” says St. Bonaventure parent, Molly Lalonde, who is mom to 8th grader Morgan, 6th grader Brooke and 2nd grader Tanner. “It made me realize how much recess and lunch time…and that social interaction was really important.” 

With the approval of a California Department of Health waiver to hold in-person instruction, TK – 6th graders at Orange County Catholic school sites returned to campus beginning September 8. Two weeks later, as Orange County COVID-19 numbers continued to stabilize, most 7th and 8th graders returned as well.  

Despite the addition of temperature checks, masks and social distancing, the students are thrilled to be back. Wickwire clearly remembers seeing the smiles in the eyes of her friends during her first day on campus in six months. 

“We’re really happy to be in person,” says Wickwire. “It makes such a difference. Part of our ‘normal’ [is] back.” 

Allen echoed similar sentiments. 

“When we heard we were coming back, we were pretty excited,” says Allen. “I feel school is [no longer] as lonely…or secluded.” 

Both 8th graders noticed an improvement in their focus and grades, and parents noticed a positive change in their children as well. Catie Allen’s mom, Jewell, works in a hospital setting, and while she was cautious about the return to St. Norbert’s campus, she has seen the mental health impact it has had on her daughter. 

“I noticed that she was so much happier to be back in person,” says Jewell Allen. “As a mom, you can see a difference in the little things.” 

Lalonde says her three kids are grateful to be back at St. Bonaventure and will no longer take for granted routines such as wearing backpacks or school supply shopping. 

“Their whole world opened up in the way they see school and appreciate school,” says Lalonde. “They feel they have a purpose.”