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Illustration by Security Management

Return to In-Person Classes Spurs Violence and Behavioral Challenges

The social isolation triggered by hybrid or remote schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic could be spurring behavioral problems and violence among students as they return to in-person schools.

A high school in Pennsylvania reverted to virtual classes for two days earlier this month due to “credible threats” of more violence after student fights on campus. It was the latest in a line of violent incidents this semester, including fights and riots, in schools across the United States. The National Association of School Resource Officers found that from 1 August to 1 October 2021, there were 97 reported gun-related incidents in schools, compared to 29 in the same period of 2019.

Teachers and school officials throughout the United States have reported a rise in everything from minor misbehaviors to fighting in hallways, The Washington Post reported. Heightened stress levels from the COVID-19 pandemic and a sudden return to a structured, social setting could be partly to blame.

According to a bulletin from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a survey of 3,300 youth found that 73 percent of students are spending four hours or less each day on school assignments or in class; 30 percent reported feeling unhappy or depressed and nearly as many reported they worry about having their basic needs—such as food, medicine, or safety—met; and 29 percent said they do not feel connected to school adults, and nearly as many said they do not feel connected to their classmates or community either.

“There has also been anecdotal evidence that suggests students have experienced an increase in cyberbullying,” the DHS report said. “Students who had experienced bullying before the pandemic are also more likely to experience pandemic stress.”

So far in 2021, there have been eight active shooter incidents and 193 not-active shooter incidents at U.S. K-12 schools, according to the school shooting database from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security. For comparison, in all of 2019, there 112 not-active shooter and seven active shooter incidents. In 36.8 percent of cases, school shootings are escalations of other disputes.

DHS warned that the threat of targeted violence in schools “will remain elevated as more children return to school full-time.”

Teachers, psychologists, and security professionals warned about the possibility of behavioral challenges last year, when the fate of in-person schooling was wildly uncertain.

“Students have been so very isolated from their peers at such important social development periods, and they have been disconnected from the larger community, while parents are struggling,” Michele Gay, cofounder and executive director of Safe and Sound Schools, told Security Management for the August 2020 issue. “No matter how functional a family is or how well suited it is to withstand this type of challenge, parents have been distracted. If they’re lucky, they are able to work from home, but it’s been a challenge to support their kids, to keep them on track with academics, to deal with their frustrations, anxieties, and depression, all while handling their own responsibilities within the family. Kids have been sponging these effects up.

“So, when we are able to reconnect—hopefully in the fall—we know schools are not going to be the same. We know kids will be coming back with a lot of negative experiences,” she added. “They will have felt the effects of stress on the family—financial stress, the day-to-day stress of being locked in together. There will be academic regression, and we know to expect social–emotional regression. Oftentimes these things manifest in negative behaviors—bullying, being grumpy, disconnected, or oppositional. School is going to be more about reconnecting and developing a supportive culture and learning how to communicate again.”

Today, teachers noted in interviews with the Post that most students have spent two grade levels outside of in-person classrooms, meaning that they missed out on essential, formative lessons on social skills, problem-solving, and personal growth. The adjustment period will take time as students catch up with schools’ expectations, other students’ levels, and personal trauma.

“The freshmen were seventh-graders last time they were in school,” Woodland Hills High School Superintendent James Harris told the Post. “They went from recess and cartwheels to ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ and ‘where do you want to go to college?’ Their bodies have grown but their minds haven’t. They’re still seeing themselves as young students who want recess, who want to play.”

He added: “A lot of it comes down to socialization, expectations, and I think deep down inside there’s a lot of sadness from the trauma that students experienced.”