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Before the pandemic, Sabrina Juarez had been looking forward to having her daughter start kindergarten. Alicianna, a bubbly little girl who loves art and math, also couldn’t wait.

However, the now 7-year-old’s behavior deteriorated so badly during distance learning that she struggled with fundamental skills like learning to read. It was an arduous experience for the whole family.

“She was crying a lot and throwing a lot of fits. She was way quicker to get frustrated and give up, and she absolutely hated having to record herself reading,” said the San Leandro mother of two. “I am worried it will happen again. I don’t know if we could handle distance learning again.”

That’s why Juarez, like many California parents, is concerned about ongoing school disruptions, which experts say increase bad behavior in children. Children are more prone to act out or become anxious, sad or depressed during distance learning. The stress and uncertainty of the situation make it harder for children to focus on academics, deepening learning loss and straining the family.

While some parents worry about whether in-person learning is safe given the latest viral surge, others are bracing for the fallout of yet another unstable school year. Many parents are still dealing with the disruptive behavior triggered by school closures even as they scramble to find test kits and masks and cope with the uncertainty that staff shortages and outbreaks might trigger more shutdowns.

“My kid cannot do distance learning ever again,” said Jamie Clausen, the mother of a 7-year-old from Campbell. “As time went on, I saw his behavior change. He didn’t enjoy school and learning, which he loved before. He’s also an only child who is extremely social, so that was also difficult. He started having tantrums and outbursts, became very sensitive, and was like a ticking bomb waiting to explode. It made the heaviness of the pandemic that much harder.”

One recent Harvard study of roughly 400 families suggests that children’s behavior worsened during Zoom school. Children were often more prone to misbehave or become aggressive or withdrawn during remote learning, according to parents surveyed as part of the broader Early Learning Study at Harvard.

“By following individual children over time, we found that their behavioral health was worse while they were in remote learning as compared to when they were in in-person or hybrid learning,” said Stephanie Jones, Harvard researcher and co-director of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative.

Children, who are creatures of habit, can be negatively influenced by any educational disruption, experts say. Adjusting to change can be especially hard on young children, making it difficult for them to focus.

“This does not mean that remote learning necessarily caused more challenging behaviors. Rather it is likely a result of the instability and uncertainty that comes with remote learning, the stress it poses for families, and anxiety tied to the broader public health conditions that coincide with remote learning,” Jones said. “These are all challenges children and families have been managing through the pandemic, and challenges that can negatively impact parent-child interactions, influence parent perceptions of children’s behavior, and also compromise how children interact with others and the degree to which they can manage their own emotions and behaviors.”

For Juarez’s little girl, one of the toughest challenges was coping with technical difficulties while learning new academic concepts. A bit of a perfectionist, Alicianna felt a lot of pressure to not make any mistakes.

“They assume they need to get everything right the first time,” Juarez said, “so they get super frustrated and upset when they can’t remember something or they accidentally mess up.”

Many children couldn’t cope without a warm and caring adult anchoring their lessons, which put a lot of strain on working parents such as Juarez, who works at night unloading UPS trucks. Some began to show signs of anxiety and depression. Others regressed in their behaviors.

“I’ve heard from so many teachers all over the state that students are much more immature than in previous years, probably due to a lack of socializing with peers,” said Paula Merrigan, a veteran teacher in Castro Valley. “Third graders are acting more like first graders. Fifth graders are acting more like third graders. It impacted every grade.”

It’s not just the youngest learners who struggled on Zoom. Merrigan’s son, Andrew, 18, also suffered from a sense of isolation and a lack of engagement with online learning that undercut his desire to pursue higher education.

An extrovert, he sorely missed experiencing milestones with his peers and felt overwhelmed by a full slate of AP classes. The deflating experience tarnished his dream of going to college.

“He disliked online learning so much that he put college off for a year, much to my dismay,” Merrigan said. “He didn’t want to attend college online since he hated online learning.”

Once students lose their sense of joy surrounding the scholastic experience, it can be hard to recapture that momentum.

“He was miserable his entire senior year, and it certainly wasn’t the fault of his teachers,” Merrigan said. “I know how much work they all put into making online learning as impactful as possible. Most students, including my own child, refused to turn their cameras on.”

Merrigan’s experience may partly explain one of the factors fueling dropping college enrollment during the pandemic. Undergraduate enrollment dropped 3.1%, or 465,300 students, from the fall of 2020 to the fall of 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Despite the valiant efforts of teachers, not to mention the parents who dutifully logged on with their children every day, some alarming learning lags may result. Standardized test scores fell significantly last year for many California students. To make matters worse, a youth mental health crisis has affected students nationwide.

“As a teacher, we all thought it would be better this year, but it’s not,” as Merrigan puts it.

At this point, Juarez is hoping that she and her daughter can put the stress of the experience behind them even as they work to catch up.

“It’s been difficult. She’s now in an after-school reading academy because she was struggling,” she said. “It was super stressful for her and hard for me to watch her struggle like that.”

It’s taking families time to repair the damage done by the last few years. Most experts say that emotional health has to come before academic achievement in this period of social upheaval.

The good news is that returning to the classroom, getting to spend time with their peers and teachers, has helped many children begin to heal from the trauma of the pandemic. As long as schools remain open, many parents are confident their children are resilient enough to bounce back.

“Since we have been back to in-person learning,” Juarez said, “it’s been smooth sailing.”

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