School's back, but this time the return is a challenge of sorts
“The fantastic beasts are back in the cage,” said Li Ping, a class dean for second graders, parroting a light-hearted comment from many parents.
The “beasts” were indeed fantastic as students finally returned to schools in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown.
They greeted teachers with excitement and didn’t seem very caged at all as they jumped around, trying to talk with much-missed classmates.
Ninth-grader Lu Kaiyue was making plans for an outing with his friends. On top of his list was a visit to the Happy Valley theme park in suburban Songjiang District. But first, he and his classmates need to finish their high-school entrance exams in less than a month.
Ninth and 12th graders were among the first to return to school in Shanghai. The last to return were first-to-third graders on June 2.
Local education authorities issued guidelines to prepare for the return of classroom education. Mental health was a key area of concern. The unprecedented pandemic came with weeks of online classes at home for students. Some, like Lu, didn’t step out of their home for weeks.
Psychologists, teachers and parents couldn’t be sure how students would react and how quickly they would adapt to the transition.
“Some of my classmates are more anxious than usual,” Lu said. “I’m a little worried too, but not too much, especially after the dates for returning to school and exams were announced.”
He added, “I also secretly believe the exams will be easier this year. After all, we went through something unprecedented.”
Many parents have similar hopes because high-school and college entrance exams are still considered two of the most important tests in China for success in later life.
“Anxiety about test scores is often a primary cause for many students to have some psychological issues,” said Song Meixia, an adolescent mental wellness expert and researcher who volunteers at a student mental health center in Songjiang. “Such anxiety, in many cases, originates from parents.”
Song said it is important for parents to refrain from transferring their own anxiety about the exams to their children.
“Our ultimate goal is not to eliminate anxiety, but to help students acknowledge that it is normal to be worried,” she said. “It’s important to acknowledge that to keep it under control and to know where to ask for help if feelings get out of control.”
In early April, the health center conducted a survey among more than 33,000 students in the district, showing that more than 70 percent would rather go to school than do home learning. Their two top concerns were related to emotional instability and exam scores.
Coping with anxiety
“Overall, I haven’t seen much change in hotline calls or counselling sessions in recent weeks,” said Song. “For some students, the virus lockdown and home classes may have worsened pre-existing conditions.”
Authorities in Shanghai started paying closer attention to the mental well-being of students more than 10 years ago, gradually including mental health counseling in schools, special training for teachers and health centers with 24-hour hotlines.
“The existing system helped us quickly come up with plans for worst possible scenarios,” said Yu Liying, deputy headmaster of Xiao Kun Shan School in Songjiang District, which has students from first to ninth grades.
“We had an online session about mental wellness and tried to prepare both parents and students before school reopened,” she said. “We designed different activities for students and asked them to express their emotions via drawing or writing. Our teachers also paid more attention to how students behaved differently. We were ready.”
Yu added, “It turned out far better than we expected, especially for lower-grade students. They are really happy to be back. We had to ask them not to hug classmates or teachers as so many of them wanted to do so.”
Parents and lower-grade students waited outside the school gate at 7am on the first day of the return to classrooms on June 2, at least 30 minutes before necessary.
“Some students complained that they had been stuck at home for so long that their relationships with parents had deteriorated, but overall, there weren’t many new issues,” said Song Lijuan, the school’s mental health counselor.
“Students in different grades have different potential issues,” she explained. “For example, students in eighth and ninth grades can suddenly find themselves feeling distant from once close classmates. Many sought out their teachers for a chat. The key is to keep it low-key, so kids know they have somewhere to go when they are unhappy.”
Song pointed to the exercise bike in the middle of the three-room health center.
“Exercise can help students relax, and sometimes they just come by to pedal for a while,” she said. “If they really need a counseling session, we can chat casually. If the issue is very serious, I refer them to a district center where more professional help is available, or to doctors if that is necessary.”
All rooms in the health center are colorfully decorated, with words of encouragement on wall posters. The rooms are spacious and airy. Toys and drawing boards are available for lower-grade children to express their feelings.
There are similar rooms in all Shanghai public schools. Counselors like Song often volunteer at the 24-hour hotlines and get regular training that they can share with teachers at school.
“We also pay attention to the mental well-being of our teachers,” deputy headmaster Yu said.
“To be honest, teachers are always under enormous pressure due to sometimes unreasonable expectations. We always hope parents will understand the complexity of our jobs,” Yu added.