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Students grapple with new social landscape as in-person learning returns

From social distancing rules to a COVID-safe Homecoming dance, students say this school year has brought a lot of changes.

MERCER ISLAND, Wash. — This story was produced in conjunction with the Mindful Headlines podcast, which explores how our psychology intersects with current events. Listen to Dr. Neeru Bakshi share on the podcast about ways parents can talk with their kids about returning to the classroom, including adhering to new rules and managing social anxiety. Watch the conversation with Bakshi on YouTube. 

This school year looks unlike any other.

Kids are back in the classrooms full-time for the first time in 18 months. However, there’s a new social landscape to deal with: they’re wearing masks, practicing social distancing and are generally forced to socialize in small groups.

“We were out for a long time. We really have no experience in terms of the real high school experience,” said Maddie Thompson, a junior at Mercer Island High School.

Thompson and her peers spent six months in high school as freshmen before the pandemic hit, and now they’re reentering school as upperclassmen.

“Four years sounds like a lot of time, but it’s not,” said Kristoffer Holtan, also a student at Mercer Island High.

Holtan said he feels like his high school experience is passing by quickly.

“It’s interesting to see how the school adapts,” Thompson said. “Our upcoming Homecoming dance is being changed so it fits the guidelines [from] the Department of Health. We’ll see how that goes.”

“You have all these procedures you have to follow, and it’s just kind of a shock,” said Connor Lamb, also a junior at Mercer Island High.

“We have to be socially distant in our classroom, but our hallways are only so big, and we only have five-minute passing periods so there’s no restrictions on how close you can be to anybody there,” Lamb said.

RELATED: Back-to-school resource guide: How districts will handle COVID-19 safety

Talking to children about the ever-changing rules and procedures surrounding COVID-19 is very important, according to Dr. Neeru Bakshi, the medical director at the Eating Recovery Center of Washington and an expert in the field of adolescent psychiatry.

“We may have our own personal frustrations that you can go to football practice and not have to wear a mask, but if you go to tennis practice you’ve got to wear your mask, as an example,” said Bakshi.

Bakshi says it’s important that parents “[be] open to the conversation that maybe I don’t know the answers as your parent, but I’m here to talk through it with you. I think we need to get out of that phase that in elementary school we often think we need to answer all of the questions that our kids have. As they move into middle school, I think it’s okay to have those conversations and to say, ‘I don’t know, but I wonder if we can explore that together.’”

There has been a sharp increase in mental health issues among children and adolescents during the pandemic. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, one in four Washington youth have struggled with suicide ideation, which is up from one in 10 in 2018.

RELATED: There's a growing number of children seeking therapy related to back-to-school anxiety

“We see again and again that mental health for children and adolescents has really been suffering through this pandemic,” Bakshi said. “Here at Eating Recovery Center and at Pathlight, we hear quite a bit from the adolescents coming in that…when they didn’t have their peers around to bounce ideas off of…everything got worse.”

“We really do know that there is a benefit in social interaction,” said Bakshi.

She suggested parents have ongoing conversations this school year with their children about how they’re coping with being inside the classroom, safety procedures in place and anxieties surrounding social events.