Courtesy of Vivian Wang / LexObserver

What are the socio-emotional, academic and mental health needs of LPS students right now, and how have they fluctuated throughout the pandemic? We explore these questions in Part 1 of a two-part series, Pandemic Learning in Lexington. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll hear from school counselors about how LPS is supporting students and from mental health professionals about helpful practices for students.

(Oct. 7 Update: You can read Part 2 about how LPS is supporting students and Part 3 for advice from mental health professionals about helpful practices for students now!)

The academic, socio-emotional and mental health impacts of remote learning on students are a well-documented, if evolving, national story. 

At the state level, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released the MCAS results from spring 2021 Sept. 21, suggesting major gaps in students’ math knowledge and, to a lesser degree, in English/Language Arts knowledge. Declines in scores follow a national trend for standardized test results, which were federally mandated this year. 

Lexington fared better than the state overall in terms of score drops, and also maintained significantly higher scores than the statewide averages, as in previous years — but still saw some declines compared to 2019, the last time the tests were administered.

The MCAS are standardized tests taken across Massachusetts by students in grades 3 through 8, and by 10th graders. The pandemic resulted in test cancellations in 2020, and many families, district leaders and education activists vocally opposed resuming testing this year, arguing that teachers had better ways of tracking any missed learning and that the MCAS were an unnecessary burden and distraction in the context of the drastic challenges school communities faced. The MCAS has long been opposed by some activists and educators as an unfair burden on teachers and an equity issue for students.

This year, the test results suggest some quantifiable academic impacts of remote learning for students of different ages. But beyond the academic data, what do these impacts look like in Lexington?

LexObserver spoke with more than a dozen LPS families and professionals in learning and child development to find out.

How did LPS students do on the MCAS?

Overall, the MCAS results appear to show some gaps in learning concentrated at the elementary and middle school levels in Lexington, especially for math. Despite these gaps, Lexington schools continued to perform significantly above statewide averages on the MCAS. 

For elementary and middle school students grades 3-8, 72% of LPS students exceeded or met expectations in math, while 75% of students did so for English — drops of 10 and 4 percentage points respectively compared to 2019. Both of these drops were less pronounced than the statewide average declines of 16 percentage points for math and 6 percentage points for English/Language Arts — with below half of students grades 3-8 meeting or exceeding English expectations statewide, and just a third of students doing so for math.

According to the Boston Globe, students in grades 3-8 were tested on just over half of the usual material to reduce the burden on students — a significant change which could complicate direct comparisons to 2019 data.

The biggest score drop for LPS occurred for 8th grade math, which fell from a 2019 total of 88% of students meeting or exceeding expectations to a 2021 total of 71% of students meeting or exceeding expectations — a 17-point drop, but still far better than the state total of an alarming 32% of 8th grade students meeting or exceeding expectations. 

At the high school level, Lexington students fared better. A total of 90% of 10th graders met or exceeded expectations in math, a drop of 4 percentage points compared to 2019, while 91% of students met or exceeded English language expectations — actually an increase of 1 point compared to two years ago. English/Language Arts performance increased 3 percentage points for 10th graders statewide, while math scores dropped 7 points statewide. Both scores were about 30 points above the respective statewide averages.

“Quite honestly, I’m dumbfounded by the critique of Massachusetts students’ performance on MCAS during a global pandemic,” LPS Superintendent Julie Hackett wrote in a message to LexObserver. She criticized “State leaders and decisionmakers who need to take a good hard look in the mirror” for perpetuating a story of public education failing students. 

“Here are the facts: Our kids had just returned to full-time, in-person learning after learning remotely for a long period of time. The first thing we did was ask them to sit with their peers and take a test, and their anxiety was through the roof. I have to believe that violates most, if not all, of the tenets of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” she added.

Hackett stressed that she does support testing students, “especially during a pandemic,” because it provides educators with crucial “baseline data, so we have a starting point to know what kinds of interventions are necessary.” Her issue, she explained, is with attempting to compare test results from 2019 with the results from this spring, “when the conditions and the tests were radically different,” including the much shorter test for students in grades 3-8. This comparison, and any conclusions about student, school, and district performance drawn from it, are “misleading,” she wrote. 

The change to the test for younger students “can cause individual student performance to vary more than usual as compared to previous years,” according to a press release from DESE Media Relations Coordinator Jacqueline Reis. She maintained that while this difference matters on the individual level, “these variations even out as groups of students are aggregated.”

Hackett reflected on the toll of the pandemic on student learning, and the ways in which students had learned other life skills due to COVID-19, in LexObserver’s previous reporting. 

Because of the pandemic disruption, schools and districts retain their pre-pandemic accountability designations, meaning that schools and districts won’t be punished for low performances on the MCAS this year. LPS continues to be classified by the state of Massachusetts as a system that “meets or exceeds targets,” the second-highest possible categorization, and therefore does not require state assistance or intervention. 

Families will receive their children’s individual MCAS scores after Sept. 30.

Beyond academic achievement: Full clinics

Across all of our interviews, the consensus was clear: Many grade-school kids of all ages need more academic and mental health support than ever before, primarily due to the pandemic. 

Beverly Montgomery, a local private speech language pathologist with almost a decade of prior experience working at LPS, founded the clinic Lex Communicate in 2011 to support students’ social communication and executive functioning. Her own clinic is “often full,” and now, her typical referral sources for speech, language and academic support are also “all pretty full,” she said. Mental health clinics have been full for even longer as a consequence of the pandemic, she added.

Lexington is far from alone in experiencing this rise in needs. Dr. Nathan Lambright, director of the Boston Child Study Center, has also seen dramatic increases in need at his practice. 

“There is a little bit more of a desperation in terms of parents saying, ‘I was told I could get an appointment in January; what am I supposed to do until January?’ Or, ‘Their evaluation isn’t until March. What do I do until then?'” Montgomery said.

Some children are able to bounce back with the right kind of structure, but many children are facing long-term challenges recovering from the disruptions of the pandemic. A lot of students have never experienced these issues before: “There’s a lot of families who are really, really struggling with behaviors that they’ve never seen before in their kids at home,” Montgomery observed.

Which ages are most impacted by COVID? One professor suggests “a U-shaped curve” 

“Often people think of education as essentially a cognitive function. But in fact, research as well as everyday experience makes clear… that we’re social people, and education is most effective when it’s social,” notes Joe Blatt, faculty director for the Technology, Innovation and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Lexington resident.

Blatt described the age distribution of “academic isolation” impacts as “kind of U-shaped.” That means it tends to be concentrated in the youngest and oldest students: It “poses the most intense challenges for very young kids — daycare and kindergarten age — and for adolescents, and probably [is] less severe in the middle of the age distribution.”

The youngest and oldest learners tend to be experiencing key transitions in development, Blatt explained. 

For the youngest learners, “it’s both the beginning of emerging from the household and strictly contact with parents, and a lot of behaviors are formed at that very young age — things like how much of yourself do you put forward? What kinds of inhibitions do you develop, what’s inappropriate for people?”

“Research as well as everyday experience makes clear… that we’re social people, and education is most effective when it’s social.”

— Joe Blatt, faculty director for the Technology, Innovation and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

On the other hand, for older kids, COVID-19 curtailed a natural time for leaving the house and developing more independence. “We talk about adolescence as a time of identity formation. A big, big part of what that means is leaving behind parent-dominated identity and developing one’s own identity in a peer culture,” Blatt said.

Anxiety and the boomerang

Blatt, Montgomery and Lambright, as well as district leaders in Lexington, all observed that some students who had previously suffered from anxiety found the decreased social pressure of online learning a relief. But this improvement had a cost, according to Lambright. “Depression and anxiety are oftentimes two sides of the same coin,” he said; when anxiety declined last fall, he noticed an increase in depression.

 This was especially concentrated in teens – “especially the more typical kinds of depression that you would see in adolescence” – but also manifested in younger students in a different form, mostly marked by behavioral changes. “In younger kids, that oftentimes presents as irritability or frustration, as opposed to more typical signs of depression,” Lambright said. These symptoms were easy to misunderstand; many parents reached out to Lambright when their young kids had challenges, but “many times it was misinterpreted as behavior issues, as opposed to mood-related issues.”

Since approximately March of last year, Lambright has seen trends in student needs take a turn in the opposite direction: the anxiety has come back, like a boomerang. “As places started opening up a little bit more [this spring], and as we’re getting back into the school year where most places are completely in person and don’t have virtual options, we’re starting to see a significant increase in anxiety again,” he said. That’s because students, en masse, have avoided social contact due to remote school — and the social readjustment can be a shock to the system.

For LPS parent Tania Dutta’s son, who was in second grade last year, remote learning was on the whole a very positive experience. Dutta’s husband is immunocompromised, so she elected to keep both of her children in remote learning for the entire year.

As a socially anxious child, her son was delighted to be able to learn without navigating the in-person elements of school, just as Lambright described. “It was a magical year for him,” Dutta said.

The experience of Dutta’s son was most common among older students, in Montgomery’s experience, including even young adults.

“Depression and anxiety are oftentimes two sides of the same coin.”

— Dr. Nathan Lambright, Boston Child Study Center director

But as Dutta noted, “next year, it’s going to make it even harder, because [my son] hasn’t been forced to interact and you can’t really live in society and not interact.”

When refusing to go to school is a symptom of anxiety or depression

With the return to full time, in-person learning, both depression and anxiety can present in children as school refusal, which Lambright noted had “significant[ly] increase[d]” this fall compared to pre-pandemic levels. As with depression, its presentation can vary by age.

“With younger kids, it’s more in your face,” Lambright said, manifesting as behavioral dysfunctions: “the kids who are screaming or attacking their parents…  or running away from their house… where they’re in fight or flight mode.” 

With adolescents, “you see more of the individuals who just shut down, they don’t get out of bed, they look catatonic in the morning. And there still can be issues with lack of recognition of why that’s happening.”

While on the surface, it appears that lots of people had these issues develop during the pandemic, Lambright has observed that many of the students he deals with actually had underlying issues that they kept hidden prior to the extreme circumstances necessitated by COVID-19. For instance, one child he works with seemed to have developed OCD during the pandemic, but had actually just been able to control it previously – “And then all of a sudden, it seemed like it came out of nowhere,” he said.

Losing the school day structure

Lambright described the importance of structure to children from a neurological standpoint. “For most kids, especially in elementary and middle school, the school day itself serves as a structure that they know what to do when, and keeps them on track—especially with younger kids whose frontal lobes (that control their executive functions and control their ability to be able to organize themselves) aren’t fully developed.”

COVID demolished the structure provided by a typical in-person school day, and in many cases required students to structure themselves. “Kids who have been fine with the structure of school [in person pre-COVID], but now they’re in front of their computer, … they have to know where to go on the online classroom to get things, they have to know what time they have to do this and that they have times blocks where they do homework. But … they’re in their room, oftentimes parents are working, so they have to organize themselves.”

Montgomery agreed that an inherent lack of structure in remote learning contributed to challenges for many students. “Very often, the schedule would change unpredictably, based on… tech challenges, or a teacher not being available when expected, or a student having a hard time,” she said. “And whereas in the classroom, maybe you could just be doing your work [during these interruptions], the screen is still staying the screen, but it’s not advancing because the teacher is helping one student. And so you’re just stuck there.”

The consequence, Lambright said, is “you have many kids who all of a sudden just stopped functioning [academically], they weren’t doing things. The environment wasn’t set up to be able to support them from an executive functioning perspective….that also had implications on individual self-esteem.” 

This was compounded by the plethora of distractions provided by screens. “Whether they were using school or home devices, they were very savvy about getting around any sort of block [on non-school activities],” Montgomery said. Though she observed this issue mostly with middle and high school students, savvy younger students could get around such blocks too. 

“For students who are really concrete or rigid thinkers, it’s very hard to switch back and forth in a hybrid model.”

— Beverly Montgomery, Lex Communicate director/speech language pathologist

Switching between work on and off-screen made focusing all the more overwhelming, Montgomery added: “For students with difficulty shifting sets, or with initiation challenges, doing anything off the screen became a huge challenge.”

Switching gears constantly

For younger students in the hybrid program last year, switching between remote and hybrid learning from week to week was a big academic and socio-emotional challenge, Montgomery observed. “For students who are really concrete or rigid thinkers, it’s very hard to switch back and forth in a hybrid model,” she said, adding that this negatively impacted many students’ learning.

“It was Wednesday of each week [more or less]… before they were really in the groove. And so you’re losing 25 to 50% of the learning, because they’re switching” back and forth between remote and hybrid on a weekly basis, Montgomery said.

During the every-other-week in-person learning, Miranda Cohen’s kindergartener at LPS experienced separation anxiety and struggled to transition to hybrid learning. “It was always like coming back after a vacation every week; it was difficult to get her to go,” she recalled. Cohen wished the school had brought K-2 back to school in-person full time from the beginning of last year, she said. 

Once Cohen’s younger daughter returned to in-person school full time on April 5, her learning sped up immensely. Prior to this return, Cohen had worried about her reading – her daughter did not recognize lowercase letters. She was “not very receptive to being taught” at home – but “then April came and the girl just started reading.” 

In general, Montgomery did not observe huge gains when her clients returned to school last spring; instead, she saw an increase in students’ anxiety about being behind, particularly for students in 1st to 6th grade. “What I did see… was a realization on the part of many of those kids, that maybe they weren’t where they should be. Which then kind of upped the anxiety,” she said. 

This anxiety is likely linked to the difference in the detail and extent of feedback students could receive during remote learning versus in the classroom, as well as a tendency of students to compare themselves to in-person peers, Montgomery said. For instance, receiving more detailed feedback during in-person school, and being more attuned to a teacher’s expectations with in-person social cues, could feel like increased criticism to the most sensitive students.

“I’ve never seen so many kids in one place”

For young kids, pandemic learning had other socio-emotional impacts as well. 

LPS parent Tina Weber took Tuesdays and Wednesdays off work to help her nephew navigate remote kindergarten throughout the fall of 2020. Whenever Weber took her nephew to the playground, he was desperate for any social interaction, she recalled. “He would try to talk to absolutely everyone…. And I’m constantly going, No, no, no, no stay six feet [away], stay away, stay not too close. And that’s really hard for a five-year-old.’”

“From the social-emotional standpoint, so much of what we do is facial expressions and obviously, that’s hard with masks and social distancing,” Montgomery said.

In fact, the isolation of COVID-19 meant that some younger students did not even remember what it was like to be around so many other young kids at once. 

“Young kids didn’t really remember being in large groups of kids. So then to go back into school full time, I had a lot of younger students telling me, ‘I can’t believe there’s so many kids, I’ve never seen so many kids in one place,'” Montgomery said. Of course, “they have, but they don’t remember it. It’s not vivid in their memory.” 

This meant that returning to school full-time late last spring, “was very overwhelming.” For instance, “the idea of recess, with three second-grade classes all outside at once, apart even from the safety concerns about COVID specifically, just the fact of that level of social activity around you was overwhelming and led to anxiety.”

In August, with many students at summer camp, Lex Communicate saw another uptick in demand, Montgomery added.

“Parents started getting all sorts of reports of social concerns when their kids had never had that before,” Montgomery said. “We were flooded in August, in a way that we’ve never been before at that time of year, with parental concern and requests for evaluations, for parent consults, for services.”

 “Everyone was so relieved that kids could be outside and be together, and then it was kind of like oh, but wait, not everybody can just go back” without a hitch, she said.

Relearning learning in community

In addition to coping with social anxiety, students are having to learn how to cooperate and compromise again. “Kids are used to having this whole house that they can just go find a room to be by themselves in. And now, all of a sudden, they don’t have that [at school]. And …you’re expected to follow the group plan again — Like, ‘no, this is what the group is doing, so you need to do it,’ versus this mentality of, ‘Oh, I can opt out whenever I want. And follow my own plan,'” Montgomery explained.

LPS parents Sacha Uljon and Daniel Debowy expressed concerns along these lines for their own daughter, a 4th grader this year. Despite not struggling academically with remote and hybrid learning, she has anxiety, and her social development seemed to suffer from remote and hybrid learning, they said. 

A lack of opportunities for group learning and social interaction “was the thing about her education that was getting visibly frayed,” Debowy said. “Despite their best efforts, you can’t have kids of this age learn to collaborate in groups while they’re all sitting in their individual houses.” 

But, like Cohen’s youngest, their daughter’s situation improved dramatically once she returned to full-time in-person school in April, both parents noted. The constant adjustment between hybrid and remote learning had been a social strain for her. Following the full return, not only was consistency restored; “I think the atmosphere was not one of looming catastrophe all the time. And the parents weren’t arguing with each other all the time,” Debowy said.

“Despite their best efforts, you can’t have kids of this age learn to collaborate in groups while they’re all sitting in their individual houses.”

— LPS parent Daniel Debowy

 “For a lot of students, it’s going to take some doing to get back into the idea of learning in community, even though in their minds they’ve been doing it all along,” Montgomery said.

Social withdrawal in older students

Like Lambright, Montgomery observed many students with social anxiety who found remote learning a relief. In her experience, this anxiety — and subsequent challenges readjusting to the regular social interactions of in-person learning — were concentrated in older students. 

“It was hard to get them to go back to doing in person things, even with peers,” she said. “And still now, there’s such a strong preference for texting or email, it’s hard to encourage the face to face, or even a phone call communication, versus asynchronous [communication].” 

“A lot of my high schoolers are saying they wish relationships could just be asynchronous,” she added.

In the absence of in-person learning, “there’s this loss of the sharing of space and the co-regulation that happens in the moment,” Montgomery said. The exacerbated social anxiety of returning to face-to-face interaction can to withdrawal — even among some college students. 

Multiple parents expressed concerns about observing withdrawals in their own children. 

Mental health and withdrawal as a consequence of remote learning were major concerns for LPS parent Alexia Duc, the mother of an 8th and 11th grader at LPS. 

“You see your child locked up in his room or become addicted to video games… , and you don’t think, Oh, well, that was COVID. You think, that was not inevitable,” she said.

Yuan Zhou and Nick Fang have two children at LPS: an 8th grader and a 3rd grader. Yuan’s mother, who is diabetic, lived with their family throughout the pandemic. With a high-risk individual at home, like Dutta, the family decided to keep their two children remote for the duration of the 2020-21 school year.

For their younger son, remote learning “was more challenging” academically, Fang said. Though he did withdraw slightly, for instance by becoming more likely to close his door during the day, he remained a happy enough kid throughout remote learning, Fang added.

On the other hand, while their older daughter had a relatively positive academic experience with remote learning, the sustained isolation took a toll on her – more so than for their younger son, Zhou said. 

Throughout the fall, “we [could] see that she gradually lost the interest and the passion to communicate with people and rather spent more time on her own… she just stayed in the room more and more,” she said. “Sometimes I found, Oh, it’s not that girl that we’re familiar with — she’s changed dramatically this year.” Zhou’s daughter complained about brain fog, and a lack of motivation, even for her former passions such as music and drawing.

Zhou expressed deep gratitude to the schools for responding promptly to their concerns about their daughter’s mental health last year. Around November 2020, the family reached out to an LPS counselor, who immediately scheduled meetings with their daughter and later put her in touch with a town mental health service.

This year, both kids have been very happy to be back in full-time in-person school — and their daughter’s mental health has greatly improved, Zhou wrote in a follow-up email. Her daughter has returned to some academic and non-academic activities and “loves to go to almost all school events and community events recently,” she wrote. 

“A lot of my high schoolers are saying they wish relationships could just be asynchronous.”

— Beverly Montgomery, Lex Communicate director/speech language pathologist

“Not all the isolation related problems are solved, but she started to re-realize how important the relationships are in our lives,” Zhou wrote.

The struggle for parents: “A widespread mental fatigue”

In addition to children, Montgomery works with parents — who have faced monumental challenges of their own. She reiterated that she does not see trends in parent pandemic experiences as Lexington-specific — but rather as local manifestations of widely observed national and international challenges.

For parents, seeing their children struggle with behavior that is totally new to them has added another layer to pandemic tribulations: “I’m hearing a lot from parents that, on top of the stress that comes with being a parent in the pandemic, is bafflement at [new] behaviors that they’re seeing in their kids…For some parents, it was like, Who is this kid? And what am I supposed to do with them? Because I don’t know who this is.” 

A more close-up view of their kids’ education also may have alerted parents to pre-existing issues that they had never observed before, Montgomery added: “For a lot of parents, they were surprised at things they noticed in their kids’ education, that they just never knew before, because they weren’t as intimately involved in the education process [prior to remote learning].” 

Some kids would not respond well to how their parents attempted to engage them in remote learning. “I had parents telling me that they know their kid isn’t accessing the remote part of education, and they tried everything they can. … if they try to force it, it’s literally a full-day tantrum. And so, there’s much more school refusal than there’s ever been,” Montgomery said.

Cohen described this challenge with her then-kindergartener last year. “At the beginning, I was doing my best to get her to sit down and no, you have to do this, and trying to make it more attractive to her; I went through all this cajoling, [and] it seems like starting to edge on threatening — and I thought, Okay, time to just go for a walk, we’ll have our own little school outside today,” she said. “We did a lot of nature walks and just a lot of stuff on our own.”

While at the district level, school leaders have been charged with helping all students, parents don’t necessarily feel individually recognized in their challenges, Montgomery observed. 

“[Parents] hear a lot of messaging around, Hey, everybody lost a year — but as a parent, you don’t care about everybody; you care about your individual kid,” she said. “I don’t think that is a reassuring message to most parents. Everybody’s feeling like their kids are not doing as well and are academically behind—relative to themselves, not to some external standard.”

“From the parent coaching perspective, there’s a big frustration in feeling like anytime they’re trying to express [a child’s] need, it gets qualified or gets discounted by the fact that everybody’s struggling,” Montgomery said. “And while they know that, it doesn’t help the emergent situation in their own house.”

This frustration could relate to the fundamental difference in the roles of parents and district leaders. 

LPS parent Daniel Gruskin views the role of the School Committee as “representing and being responsive to the citizens that elected them, and advocating for the children in their community,” he wrote in a follow-up email. He felt that School Committee members did not fulfill this role during COVID-19: “People who were supposed to represent us didn’t, and appeared to be representing something else,” he said. But School Committee members described their role as to make the best decisions for all students in the district.

School Committee members’ roles differ from individual parents’ roles in a key way, said School Committee Vice Chair Eileen Jay, who previously served as Chair and has been a member since 2016. “As School Committee members, we are tasked with the role of watching out for all students….we are responsible for all 7,000+ students, in the same way that the parents are responsible for their own.”

School Committee member Sara Cuthbertson echoed this disconnect. “Most people have [only]…the focus on their own kid,” she said. “And that’s not a selfish thing….It’s just those two things [focusing on all students versus one student] sometimes come up in opposition to each other.”

“I also hear a lot of frustration of like, ‘please don’t tell me that at least I have more time with my kids. Or, yes, everybody’s behind, or, the kids will be all right; this is good for building resilience.’ [Parents are] tired of hearing those things,” Montgomery explained. “There’s also just a wide-spread mental fatigue of advocating [for your children],” she added. “I’m used to seeing it in kids with specialized needs, just not necessarily in this wide swath of parents.”

Duc expressed a similar frustration. She felt that the School Committee disproportionately discussed students who were doing well with remote learning during public meetings. To Duc, this positivity felt like “gaslighting.” Seeing kids’ mental health deteriorate “and having the kids physically at home with nothing to do, and the school starting to not listen [is bad enough], but even worse, [they] tell us that everything was okay, and that a lot of kids were very happy — basically saying, if your kid doesn’t do well, that’s your problem.”

Each of the four School Committee members interviewed by LexObserver fully acknowledged the immense, varied challenges families have faced throughout COVID-19. “This past year just felt like no matter what we did, even if we thought that our decision was definitely the right one for the school system as a whole, you knew that it was harder for some families and some students,” Cuthbertson said. “And that really is a difficult feeling.”

“Parents are looking for permission to be struggling,” Montgomery said. “And not [to] feel like there’s something wrong with them that this is hard.”

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