For the first time in 30 years of teaching, a student punched Marie Valero.
Valero, a former teacher at Glen Springs, Littlewood and Terwilliger elementary schools said returning to in-person learning after online and hybrid models brought an onslaught of behavioral and attention issues in students.
Students who missed out on formative education during the pandemic, generally kindergarten and first grade, are suffering socially and emotionally, she said.
“They just get up and do whatever they want,” she said. “They'll get up and they'll walk out in the classroom. They feel like they don't have to listen to the teachers.”
In March 2020, Alachua County Public Schools shut down in response to COVID-19. Schools shifted to a hybrid system in 2021, in which half of the student body attended in person and the other half remained virtual based on personal preference.
In 2022, ACPS reopened fully in person; that’s when some school faculty began noticing a dramatic shift in behavior.
The issue is widespread across the U.S. — teachers are noticing worsened, aggressive behavior following virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bouts of mental health crises have affected the next generation of learners. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 31% increase in 2020 for adolescent inpatient treatments relating to suicide attempts.
ACPS has seven counselor vacancies, Alachua County Education Association president Carmen Ward said during the Future of Florida education policy summit at UF Saturday. Instead, behavioral referrals are left for school principals to handle.
Throughout ACPS’ elementary, middle and high schools, monthly discipline offenses have risen 75% since August 2022, according to the ACPS January 2023 scorecard.
The most common discipline offenses were unsafe acts for elementary students, classroom disruption for middle schoolers and skipping or leaving campus for high schoolers.
Valero now works in Osceola County. She left the district in part due to disagreement with school administration, she added.
With so many families losing jobs during the pandemic, students had to raise themselves, Valero said.
“When they get to school, then the teachers have to pick up that slack and not only be the teacher, but you're being the parent as well,” she said.
Social-emotional learning, which includes concepts like self-awareness and relationship skills, is needed to bridge the behavioral gap, Valero said.
ACPS doesn’t make teachers feel supported, she said.
“They do not treat their teachers with respect,” she said. “They do not listen to their teachers. They are losing teachers,” she said.
She believes administration needs to see firsthand what teachers are dealing with.
“They need to spend a day and actually see what the teachers are going through,” Valero said. “The kids that show up two hours late every day, the kids that there's no food and they're stealing from each other.”
Aisha Yarn, dean of students at Newberry High School, said she receives an average of four to seven referrals relating to discipline and behavior disruption on any given day.
Prior to her position at Newberry, Yarn worked as a Behavioral Resource Teacher at Terwilliger Elementary School, and she now concurrently serves as a member of Alachua County Public Schools' District Discipline Committee.
Regardless of grade level, the behavioral issues in post-COVID-19 learning environments stem from the same causes, Yarn said.
The disengagement resulting from increased dependence on technology creates tension between students and teachers. It also results in the deterioration of children’s language and communication skills, she said.
“Something that would've either not been issues years ago or would've been able to be resolved a little bit easier is now more difficult,” she said.
Behavior problems have prompted teachers, teaching aides and bus drivers to leave the profession or plan to do so, Yarn said.
“The pandemic is merely one contributing factor,” she said. “A solutions-based approach that includes funding along with the full support of community stakeholders, families, mental health advocates, business and government leaders is essential.”
After students came back in person, students’ mental health and trust in the school system are hanging by a thread, Gainesville High School counselor Claire Norguerol said.
Truancy and absences were issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Norguerol said, and the emphasis on social media has only contributed to this. Many physical altercations begin online, she said.
“The social media aspect has completely taken over their lives,” she said. “There's this whole underworld of social media — just swiping, swiping, swiping.”
Students should receive education on proper social media usage as they grow up, Norguerol said.
“We're doing the students a disservice,” she said.“We're not actually teaching them how to use their devices.”
Social media usage during the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically increased. Without ways to connect in person, teens flocked to social media platforms in order to remain in touch with loved ones. However, reliance on these platforms can contribute to existing mental health problems.
Melissa Heitzler, a fifth-grade teacher at Archer Elementary School, described the behavioral shift during the pandemic as students’ “survival mode.”
“I know it sounds weird, but it was more a mode of survival,” she said. “School was there, but it wasn’t top priority.”.
Some students noticed the shift within their home lives, such as businesses being shut down and parents potentially losing jobs, Heitzler said.
In elementary schools, Heitzler noticed returning to in-person schooling was difficult for students.
“I did a lot more hands-on stuff to try to keep them awake and keep them engaged,” she said.“I had to go outside of the box of really bringing them in and getting them interested again.”
Gainesville High School physics teacher Keith Watts also notices behavioral issues in the high school setting. On walks during his free period, he is often bombarded by the sound of students shouting expletives.
Watts, who has been teaching at Gainesville High since 2006, said pre-COVID pandemic, unmotivated students would generally keep to themselves.
“Behavior has become far more mere malicious, far more disrespectful and not just malicious towards the teacher, but malicious towards each other,” he said.
There was no other solution to the pandemic but to act as they did, Watts said, but doing so had consequences.
“I can't really look at anyone and say it is this specific person's fault,” he said. “It's not the fault of the schools. It's not the fault of the teachers, it's not the fault of the parents. Everyone did the best with what they had. Everyone tried as hard as they could.”
Watts noticed an increase in the teacher shortage as a result of this bad behavior, he said, which in turn provides less attention for students, worsening student behavior and starting the cycle again.
“These kids desperately need help, but they're not going to ask for it,” he said. “We've got teachers who are overwhelmed. We've got guidance counselors who are overwhelmed. What we need is we need help from the state.”
Contact Peyton at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @peytonlharris.
Peyton Harris is a first-year English major and the News Assistant for The Alligator. She is also a member of Zeta Tau Alpha and spends her free time re-listening to Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers and binging Criminal Minds.