Community is key for students and teachers recovering from pandemic isolation


As the three-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic passes by, in-person school communities have begun reappearing. However, the return also brings challenges for students who have lost years of essential social development to pandemic isolation. Three St. Louis professors remedy social disconnects in the classroom by emphasizing community and adopting a mental health-aware teaching approach.

“We used to go to class, we used to have this time that we can interact with pre-installed in our day. We’d be able to bond, or classmates would be able to bond, with our teacher,” Joseph Parks, Webster graduate student, said. “But after the pandemic, we have to actively reinstall social behaviors. We have to say, ‘I have to reach out to this person’ because social interaction is a habit that’s built. And I think a lot of people lost the ability to connect to many of the people that made their day better.”

In December 2022, Parks and several other Applied Educational Psychology and School Psychology (AEPSP) program students, graduates and professor Deborah Stiles presented at the International Council of Psychologists (ICP) virtual conference. Their presentation, titled “COVID-19, Teachers, Mental Health Professionals, Well-Being, and International Children’s Rights” was a follow-up to their 2020 presentation on the initial psychological impact of COVID-19 in school settings. 

While the group hypothesized that the psychological effects of the pandemic would lessen over time, they found no significant change in anxiety levels among school professionals and students as the pandemic has slowed down. Parks explained that students who have lacked social interactions in college have missed essential social preparation for their academic careers, yet the education system holds them to the same standard as students before the pandemic.

“It’s like a broken leg, right?” Parks said. “You can’t walk off a broken leg, there needs to be some sort of mediation, or there needs to be some sort of treatment or an address of the real immediate problem, [which is that] students are emotionally and intellectually behind.”

Graphic by Kenzie Akins.

Pandemic isolation has also taken a massive toll on students’ mental health. One Healthy Minds study found that 60% of college students met the criteria for one or more mental health issues during the 2020-2021 school year. Similarly, almost three-quarters of students in one national survey reported moderate or severe psychological distress, according to the American College Health Association in 2021.

Jessica Brown, an AEPSP student who presented at the ICP, said that when instructors recognize these pandemic-induced mental health challenges and frame the pandemic as a shared social experience, they help students heal. Stiles, who led the AEPSP studies, uses a trauma-informed community healing approach with in-class “Resiliency Meetings,” where students are encouraged to share struggles and offer supportive advice. 

“We’re all going through collective trauma,” Brown said. “And I think every person could participate in a Resiliency Meeting about how they feel now that COVID-19 is done. Like, ‘I feel happy that I’m not afraid of dying. And that I’m not afraid of my family dying. But I feel sad because I enjoyed some aspects of COVID, like I enjoyed getting to be home, or I enjoyed getting to pursue my passions. And I feel guilty for having positive feelings for a time when so many people were suffering.’”

Stiles is just one of several Webster professors who recognizes the long-lasting mental impact of the pandemic. Psychology Department Chair Morgan Grotewiel said students who did not receive in-person high school experiences find college to be more stressful and require more faculty support than others. Associate psychology professor and advocate for student mentorship Eric Godereis said he supports students through conversations about mental health, which the pandemic has helped normalize. 

Instructors outside Webster University are also incorporating educational approaches that acknowledge the pandemic’s social consequences. Genevieve Keyser, associate professor of psychology at Saint Louis University (SLU), recognizes post-pandemic mental health concerns and hopes that conditions are improving. Still, she has classroom accommodations in place to support student mental health because she recognizes how community building helps students cope. 

“Learning involves being part of a community. You can make that an asynchronous community, you can make it an online synchronous community, or you can make it in person . . .  I go back a lot to this idea of self-determination theory, and that’s really just this macro-idea of what student’s needs are,” Keyser said. “There’s a need for autonomy, competence and relatedness. So, if you can meet all three of those, whether you’re online or in-person, then in theory, the students should be pretty successful.”

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Molly Foust (she/her) is the Editor-in-Chief for The Journal. She was previously the News & Lifestyle editor in 2022. She is a junior Journalism major at Webster University, but in fall 2023, she will be transferring to the University of Hartford to major in Digital Media and Journalism with an emphasis in Media Studies. She has been writing for The Journal since her freshman year, and she graduated from Seckman High School in 2021. She is also a Writing Coach at the Reeg Academic Resource Center. She loves animals and has two cats named Cisco and Hellboy (and a rat named George), which fuel her passion for environmental journalism. She enjoys studying biology, psychology and feminist literature, and her favorite things to do are listen to music (especially Amy Winehouse), and spend time with her friends at The Journal!