Almost from the beginning of the new school year in New Jersey, which has featured a return to in-person learning, students, teachers and administrators have been talking about the stress, anxiety and pressure of going back to class in the midst of the COVID pandemic.

While some students are anxious about exposure to the virus and how it may impact them and their family members, others have been shaken by their parents suffering major financial issues caused by the pandemic, and everyone is under increased pressure to make up for the learning loss resulting from last year’s virtual learning format.

Discussions have been underway in school districts throughout the state on how to try and relieve that stress, with some districts starting to try different approaches.

Public schools in Roxbury Township will use one of their emergency days this coming Friday to give students and their families a “wellness” break, while the Wayne school district scheduled three “wellness weekends” where no homework will be assigned.

How bad is the problem?

Rich Bozza, the executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said it has become clear the stress on students, particularly those in middle and high school, is greater than ever before.

He pointed out there is no clear answer for how best to deal with all of the stressors caused by the pandemic, so school districts are reaching out to students and their families.

"We want you to speak up and talk with us and to create an environment where everybody feels more comfortable than they ever have before.”

Bozza said everyone in education has been through an extremely difficult 21 months, where students and educators have had to deal with the new normal.

“We’re in a new world and everybody is trying to kind of decipher their way through that to say how can we continue to do this best, how can we support you.”

Maurice Elias, a psychology professor and director of Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab at Rutgers University, said this is an issue that needs to be addressed because “when kids are under a high degree of stress they’re just not going to learn effectively.”

Possible solutions?

Elias said one way schools can help make things less pressure-packed is to incorporate a short period of silent reflection either every day or a few times a week.

“A moment of mindfulness, and that really means maybe two or three minutes, that tends to be a good stress alleviator,” he said.

These types of exercises, Elias said, helps recenter people while also making them less anxious.

Bozza said the attempts by school districts to help students cope with what they are going through is important and welcomed, but it’s also challenging since giving kids an unexpected day off could cause problems at home.

“If you are to change a day of attendance for school it creates issues for parents who work, and take care of their children,” Bozza said. "In each school district they weigh these things very carefully and talk with their communities before they make a decision.”

More must be done

Elias said while it’s a positive step to begin to look for solutions to COVID-related school stress, there is a larger issue that also needs to be addressed.

“If we’re saying that we can relieve the kids' stress by giving them a break from school, then that implies that school is causing a lot of stress,” he said.

Elias added if everyone in a school gets a wellness day off, hopefully it will give educators, who are also under a lot of COVID stress, time to think about different ways they can help to reduce student stress during the school day moving forward.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at david.matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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