By Fran Yanor, Local Journalism Initiative

James was never thrilled with school. Social settings made him anxious. His parents broke up when he was seven and he attended five different elementary schools. He recalls having a handful of casual friends, mostly in the early grades.

“People said it would be better in high school,” said James, who asked that his last name not be used. “And it was completely worse.”

He didn’t know his teachers. The students he did know were in different classes.

“I would never go into the cafeteria because I didn’t have anyone to sit with,” James said. “At some point, I just gave up eating lunch.”

He skipped a lot and found solace in online gaming, playing for hours, sometimes many days, straight.

“When I found something that gave me a reason to be in another situation, I guess it just completely took over,” he said.

In Grade 9, he stopped going to school altogether and switched to remote learning.

Now 27 years old with a successful career in Vancouver’s television industry, James doesn’t recommend it.

“Remote learning gets rid of the one thing that could possibly keep kids at school,” said James. “They may have no interest in learning – most of them don’t – but there’s still that social aspect where they want to interact with their friends.”

With the social environment removed, students are left with the learning aspect. “That could be dangerous,” he said, and some kids will give up.

Students in B.C. returned to full-time in-class instruction this week. Two thirds of students in the province didn’t attend part-time classes in June and have been away from the school setting for 175 days.

Some experts worry about the effects of being out of school for so long.

Registered psychologist Dr. Alison Spadafora says parents who are worried about how their children are coping with remote learning should watch for sudden changes in behavior and be reassured that being supportive builds resiliency. /Photo courtesy Alison Spadafora

“We know that kids benefit from having that structure in place,” said Dr. Alison Spadafora, a registered psychologist from Kelowna who has worked with adolescents for 10 years. “When that structure is taken away, it’s harder to cope with stress.”

Schools provide a very important feedback loop for identity development, said Dr. Trevor Corneil, a UBC clinical professor in population health whose work spans mental health and social justice. “As much as we loved or hated our middle and high school experiences, that’s the point,” said Corneil. “They do help form who you are, or give us a safer space where you can do that.”

There are some things your parents can’t teach you, he said.

“All children, as they begin to consolidate their identity, go through what’s called phases of identity crisis,” said Corneil, “trying out different things that people around them may or may not appreciate or like.” From that experimentation, they learn how the world reacts to them and how they want to react to the world.
The danger in remote learning for some students, is the social isolation that may accompany it. “Identity foreclosure is where, without any exploration, you’ll come to the conclusion that you don’t know how to do math because people have been telling you you’re bad at math,” Corneil said. “When you’ve never actually been given the space to explore math and come to that conclusion yourself.”

That strikes true for James. “I think I missed out on a lot of stuff,” he said of his withdrawal from the high school community.

“The most successful learning for most individuals is learning in relationship with others where they feel safe and cared for, and welcomed,” said Anita Richardson, Superintendent of Prince George School District. “For many kids the difference maker is that caring adult that they have, and or the caring peers, or the social environment that they learn in.”

Each year in SD57, students who should have graduated, don’t. “Every time a student transitions from one school to another, there’s an increased risk they won’t reengage,” said Richardson. One of the current priorities of the school district is to catch those kids, reach them earlier, and support them and their learning in a way that works better for them, she said.

Teachers can provide valuable support and insight, said Spadafora, who reviews teachers’ observations on report cards when she conducts psychological assessments of children and youths.

“Teachers usually have a pretty good sense of when children are struggling,” said Spadafora.

They may notice reduced concentration, a drop in academics, an unusual amount of absences, or a new pattern of not completing homework.

For James, disaster was ultimately averted. His family mobilized and after a thoroughly disagreeable stint with online learning, he found a purpose in school and forced himself back into the classroom. While he never felt comfortable socially with his peers and still skipped a lot of school, he eventually graduated after an extra year of classes.

Support between parents and children, between the family and school officials, all makes a difference, said Spadafora. “Supporting each other… really helps people be resilient during this time.”

James’ social isolation finally eased slightly when he was 23 attending a specialized program in a small post-secondary setting. For the first time since early elementary school, he spent time with students outside school. “I was carried by the social people, basically,” he said with a laugh.

Nowadays, his busy job has given him a lot of practice interacting with co-workers. While it still feels awkward sometimes, he knows he’s improving. “But, I still feel like I’m only catching up to where the majority of people were halfway through high school.”

Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / [email protected]