Kentucky youth-led study shows mental health, social challenges of COVID-19

By: - January 19, 2023 5:40 am
Students and teachers in a lunchroom

Teachers gather and speak as students eat at socially distanced tables in the cafeteria of Medora Elementary School in Louisville on March 17, 2021, the day Jefferson County Public Schools re-opened for in-person learning with new COVID-19 procedures in place. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

A new study on how Kentucky’s youth have coped with COVID-19 reports mental health challenges, negative views toward remote learning and more. 

The report was published Wednesday by the Kentucky Student Voice Team, which is a youth-led nonprofit with a goal of creating “more just, democratic Kentucky schools and communities as research, policy & advocacy partners.” 

Researchers interviewed 50 Kentuckians as well as conducted a survey for the study. It was analyzed by the Student Voice Team and University of Kentucky researchers. 

They found that many students felt “heavily negative” about online learning. Students felt like their opinions did not matter enough to administrators. Youth experienced strained mental health during the pandemic. Finally, many reported they struggled with loss of social interactions and milestones. 

“But in the meantime, it's those small moments, those memories, that laugh, that joke, that little small project that you had with your classmates, that class project that we had, that is what makes school meaningful and important right now. It's those moments. It's those moments that make school what it is. It always has been.”

– Anonymous student

They described “shock and grief at the loss of the social aspects of learning,” which ranged from jokes in a group project to prom. And, students praised their teachers for helping them cope. 

Still, challenges brought on by the pandemic were relentless. 

‘Give them options.’ 

One student told interviewers that they felt like in Zoom classes the lack of requirement that cameras be on was a “barrier” to learning. Another said they needed better instruction and didn’t get much out of watching videos. 

“Give them options,” one student is quoted in the report as saying. “That’s what I would have liked last year, that’s what I would have liked this year, and that’s what I would have liked or will like for every year that we’re dealing with something like this.”

Students who participated in this study expressed “almost universal frustration” with administrators, who they said made them feel like their opinions did not matter when they were difficult to reach. 

One student described contradicting guidance on masking in schools from the principal and superintendent. 

“It was just very messy and everyone chose sides and it affected our education,” that student said, according to the study.  

Students described mental health fallout, too, from studying in the same place they slept. That caused at least one student to form an obsession with school. It was the one thing they could control, they told researchers. 

“I would spend just hours at a time without going to the restroom or eating or anything, just working on schoolwork. And it was really unhealthy. And so that wasn’t necessarily just because of COVID. But I think it definitely did enable me to feed into those bad habits a lot more,” that student said. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last March that 37% of high school students reported poor mental health in 2021. Additionally, 44% “reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.” The National Suicide Prevention and Crisis Lifeline is 988 – and anyone can call or text it for mental health help. 

“Students almost felt ‘stranded’ in a sense where online schooling was not set up in a comprehensive way meant to stimulate learning,” said researcher Esha Bajwa. “Instead, it was mostly an afterthought to sending people home with many feeling that there was no real way of feeling connected and/or engaged with school.” 

Researchers said the long term effects of mental health fallout should continue to be studied. “Whether the pandemic was the inciting event or merely an amplifier, its effects on mental health for students were devastating and deserve to be studied for years to come,” they said. 

Policy and Practice recommendations 

Researchers outlined these policy and practice recommendations for the future: 

  • Prioritize students’ mental health by adapting workload and class structure. Advocate for better awareness and access to mental health counselors. Add mental health days, check-in surveys and mindfulness opportunities. 
  • Allow for more transparency in understanding material and provide additional support for students, such as reviewing material and adding peer tutoring. 
  • Demonstrate care for students’ vast and varied circumstances, including being aware of equity. Humanize the struggles during and after COVID. 
  • Consider health precautions through a new perspective, clearly communicate exposures and accommodate those who are immunocompromised. 
  • Actively seek to involve students in the decision-making processes by adding voting student members to school boards.
  • Implement equity-oriented positive reinforcement systems to celebrate student achievements and foster supportive school climates
  • Create an environment where students can connect with each other and teachers and prioritize social connection in the classroom. 
  • Challenge the normative notion that a students’ value is tied to academic successes. Celebrate student achievements beyond a solely academic context. Also, diversify grading methods. 
  • Utilize more interactive teaching practices and focus on group work.

Part I came out in Spring 2020 and found, among other things, that students felt the meaningfulness and manageability of their schoolwork declined during the first semester of pandemic-induced remote learning. 


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Sarah Ladd
Sarah Ladd

Sarah Ladd is a Louisville-based journalist from West Kentucky. She has covered everything from crime to higher education. In 2020, she started reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and has covered health ever since. At the Kentucky Lantern, she covers mental health, abortion, COVID-19 and more.