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Children harmed by restrictions: State needs to do better on pandemic

Former Finlandia University Lions men’s hockey assistant coach Micah Stipech is now in the same role with the Houghton Gremlins hockey team. He is also the guidance councilor at Houghton Elementary School. (Photo courtesy of FU)

HOUGHTON — According to a Feb. 24 COVID-19 update from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, 85% of Michigan’s school districts are currently back in-person and according to a report from the state’s “research partners, Epic (a privately held healthcare data software corporation), 97% of school districts will be instructing face-to-face again by today.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Michigan hard, and our students, families, teachers, and school staff have all felt the strain,” said Whitmer. “Still, our educators have worked tirelessly to teach our children during this pandemic under the most stressful conditions, and for that our state is forever indebted to them for their service.”

She went on to say that it is important to remember that schools also provide other elements necessary to the success of students, including reliable internet access, nutritious meals and mental health support.

“There have been disheartening impacts on children’s mental and physical health since their lives were upended in March (2020),” she said. But is the state fully aware of the impact its actions are having on Michigan’s youth?

The most prevalent impacts on them, said Houghton Elementary School Councilor, Micah Stipech, are depression and anxiety. But equally important, is getting to the sources of them.

“My focus has been on anxiety and depression, which are the most common features with all people,” said Stipech, “but, over the last six or seven years, it’s increased, especially in our elementary school students. And it has been accelerated in the last year. The amount of anxiety, and things that stem from anxiety.”

The effects of isolation forced children due to the pandemic is key factor, because children are social by nature. In school, on playgrounds, in social settings, are where children learn social and cultural skills. But being told to isolate from friends at school, or even family members outside of the home, younger children perceive the presence of a danger.

“If their minds are interpreting something as dangerous, but it’s not really — there’s not a tiger chasing them — but, their response is the same,” Stipech explained. “They are having the same kind of stress levels.”

Knowing the fear of a tiger is healthy, he went on. A tiger can be seen, identified, and a situation avoided.

“But what is so tough right now,” he said, “is they don’t know where it’s coming from, or why. I think that makes it a little bit worse.”

One of the difficult elements contributing to the complexity of the situation is they are deeply effected by their environments, which for the student, is their home life.

They are at school for seven hours, said Stipech, but during the current time, “home can be a ‘perfect storm,’ with the ongoing pandemic, along with all the political events — all of these heated subjects that draw adults in — and change their home environments to be more toxic, but also take away their (sense of security).

“If an adult is in a fight-or-flight state, then their not picking up on the science from their kids, it’s a trickle down.”

Distance learning for extended periods, like those experienced repeatedly since March, 2020, is difficult for young people, Stipech said. Developmentally, young students are not at the point where they can identify their emotions, or externalize the issues to ask where I do I fit — and why? — How do these other parts fit?

“So, you see the mental health symptoms in young people, but they usually don’t know why,” he said.

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