NEW BEDFORD — Celeste Matute, a 17-year-old senior at New Bedford High School, cannot wait to graduate. But instead of enjoying the senior year, Matute is navigating a semester filled with confusion and anxiety around COVID-19.

Matute, who was a sophomore when COVID-19 caused schools to close, feels that “people have kind of just given up and they just want to settle for the bare minimum. They are just kind of waiting to graduate and to leave. We feel like we can’t do it anymore.”

According to Kathleen Mackenzie, the supervisor of clinical and behavioral services at New Bedford Public Schools and a licensed clinical social worker, students like Matute are not in the majority, but they are also not alone.

“There’s a huge majority of students who are doing fine,” she said. “But we have seen an increase in anxiety and depression, which are consistent with national trends.” 

A 2021 meta-analysis of 29 studies across the globe by the University of Calgary found that school-age children exhibited symptoms of anxiety and depression twice as frequently as they did before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, an estimated 25.2% of adolescents show signs of clinically elevated depression and 20.5% show signs of clinically elevated anxiety. 

According to Mackenzie, the fatigue brought on by the length of the COVID-19 pandemic can compound on top of anxieties and depression. “One thing I hear across the board is that a lot of people are just tired,” she said. “A lot of people thought it was going to be more of a sprint, but we’re in a marathon.”

Credit: Jonathan LeBlanc-Unger / For The New Bedford Light

Students in New Bedford Public Schools have been running this marathon since March 13, 2020, when Superintendent Thomas Anderson initially closed New Bedford Public Schools for one week. Then, following increased rates of COVID-19, the schools transitioned to a hybrid model beginning Aug. 31, 2020, where some students learned virtually while other, “high-risk,” students, who receive extra attention in school, learned in classrooms. By April 7, 2021, all of the approximately 9,000 New Bedford public school students returned to in-person instruction.

Matute’s initial excitement to return to school was tempered by the realities of wearing masks, social distancing in classrooms and plexi-glass dividers at lunch tables. 

“You’re still seeing the aftermath,” said Matute. “As much as everyone wants to put everything behind them, it’s like a ghost that’s still following you.” 

For Emily DeSouza, 17, a senior at New Bedford High School, this aftermath comes with a relaxed attitude toward COVID-19 safety that splits the student body. 

“I know some people who are super worried about COVID and I know some people who don’t care,” said DeSouza. “I walked by some kid in the hallway the other day, who said COVID wasn’t real, that it’s just another version of the flu.”

The hallways, said DeSouza, are now one-way. Students are encouraged to move in the same direction to keep traffic to a minimum. However, an overheard exchange between teachers during the passing period, “Oh, hold your breath,” only heightened her worries of navigating the packed halls.

DeSouza continued, “I think a lot of people are like, ‘yeah, I care about COVID,’ but their actions show differently. There’s a lot of people who wear their masks below their nose. There’s a lot of teachers who do it, too. Which is annoying, because you’re supposed to be the people telling students to pull their mask up and yours is down.” 

In the New Bedford Public School district, masks are currently required of all teachers and for all students through grade 12 while indoors, although the policy may be changing in the near future. Superintendent Thomas Anderson is expected to make an announcement today (Friday) about mask policies and the COVID testing program, according to school spokesman Arthur Motta.

“I walked by some kid in the hallway the other day, who said COVID wasn’t real, that it’s just another version of the flu.”

Emily DeSouza

The New Bedford Public School COVID-19 Tracking Dashboard notes there were 3,571 cases of COVID-19 reported in the entire district since Sept. 13, 2021, 547 of which were from New Bedford High School as of Feb. 17, 2022.

Isadora Sylvia-Ribeiro, an 18-year-old senior at New Bedford High School, said that inconsistent enforcement of mask requirements contributes to the anxiety in school. 

“Generally, nobody wears a mask. It’s legitimately a problem, and it bothers me a lot,” said Sylvia-Ribeiro. “I admit, I’ll get tired, I’ll take my mask off. I feel like you’re not a normal person if you don’t take a couple mask breaks. But there are kids who walk in the hallway with no mask in sight, they will yell back at teachers who do ask them to put their mask up.”

Along with the anxiety caused by fears of catching COVID-19, difficulties adjusting to in-person instruction and social situations after a long period of isolation have taken a toll, said students.

“Isolation isn’t good for anybody. It increases anxiety and can also increase paranoia,” said Mackenzie. “The fact that people are back and interacting is great. I do think there are some folks that are taking a little bit longer to get comfortable. It’s also, I think, because the social norms are a little bit different now.”

Amanda Phillips, a school-based program director and clinical social worker with New Bedford Child and Family Services, sees similar problems adjusting to a school setting among the elementary and middle-schoolers that she and her team of counselors work with.

According to Phillips, issues around solving conflict and socializing with other students and teachers have been on the rise following the return from virtual learning.

“They don’t really know how to be in school, as far as the socialization piece goes, especially kids who had trouble before the pandemic,” said Phillips. “So, it’s like they were more in their comfort zone being at home. Putting them back into school has really been a challenge, especially for those kiddos.”

For Sylvia-Ribeiro, the comfort zone isn’t at home, it’s on stage. As vice-president of the New Bedford High School drama club, Sylvia-Ribeiro considers having an artistic outlet as important for mental health. In 2020, the drama club’s spring musical, “Freaky Friday,” was first postponed, then planned to be livestreamed, then ultimately canceled — a major disappointment for Sylivia-Ribeiro.

“Generally, nobody wears a mask. It’s legitimately a problem, and it bothers me a lot.”

Isadora Sylvia-Ribeiro

“I’ve been performing since I was 3, so being on stage is literally what I love to do,” said Sylvia-Ribeiro, who played a leading role in last year’s production of “By the Skin of our Teeth.” “It’s what I used to cope, and get away from my problems at home.”

Students who use after-school clubs and sports to get away from the stresses of academics or home life have been forced to contend with cancellations since the first school closures in 2020. A tentative in-person graduation was canceled, award ceremonies were moved online and all extracurricular activities were stopped. Most recently, athletic activity was halted for one week in January, 2022, due to a breakout of COVID-19 among sports teams. 

Now, according to New Bedford Public School spokesperson Arthur Motta, high school seniors can at least look forward to prom, although it could still be canceled if COVID-19 cases rise.

For students facing challenges adjusting to school or handling anxiety, there are options for in-school counseling, said Mackenzie. For younger children, she described “zones of regulation,” a strategy for identifying feelings of depression, lethargy, anxiety or hyperactivity and finding strategies to deal with those feelings. 

For older students, one-on-one counseling is available in New Bedford Public Schools. Students who need long-term counseling are often referred to outside agencies like New Bedford Child and Family Services through wraparound programs offered by the schools. 

View a timeline of COVID-19 in New Bedford schools

Timeline: COVID-19 and New Bedford schools

  • Feb. 1, 2020: First confirmed case of COVID-19 in Massachusetts.
  • March 13, 2020: New Bedford Public School Superintendent Thomas Anderson closes schools for one week until March 23, 2020. 
  • March 17, 2020: Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker orders all public and private schools to close from March 17 through April 7.
  • July 27, 2020: New Bedford High School Class of 2020 in-person graduation is canceled and moved to a virtual ceremony. 
  • Aug. 14, 2020: New Bedford Public Schools announces a three-phase reopening plan designed to bring students and teachers back to in-person education throughout the school year.
  • Aug. 31, 2020: Phase one of the reopening plan begins. Teachers and staff report to work for professional development and training.
  • Sept. 16, 2020: The first cohort of “high-risk” students returns to in-person classes for five days a week. High-risk students are those who spend less than 40% of their time in general education, who are level one English language learners, or who are homeless or have other extenuating circumstances. 
  • Oct. 5, 2020: The second cohort of students in transition grades returns to school in person for two days and continues learning virtually for three days.
  • Oct. 19, 2020: The final cohort of students returns to school in person for two days and continues learning virtually for three days.
  • Dec. 21, 2020: All New Bedford public school students returned to virtual learning before holiday break, then continued to learn virtually until Jan. 8, 2021. According to Superintendent Thomas Anderson, this decision was made to “assist as high numbers of staff have been out for a variety of reasons including being close contacts.” 
  • April 7, 2021: All New Bedford public school students return to in person class five days a week. 
  • Aug. 24, 2021: The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requires all students over the age of 5 to wear face masks until October 1, 2021.
  • Feb. 9, 2022: Gov. Charlie Baker announces that statewide public school mask mandates will end on Feb. 28, 2022. 
  • Feb. 18, 2022: To-date, New Bedford has not changed its school mask policy, but Superintendent of Schools Thomas Anderson is expected to make an announcement today regarding masks and COVID-19 testing.

Mackenzie also said that a healthy sleep schedule helps combat day-to-day mental stress. According to Mackenzie, adolescents need between nine and 11 hours of sleep every night. Sleep deprivation, said Mackenzie, is involved in every major mental health diagnosis and can contribute to a 70% drop in immune system response.

According to Mackenzie and Phillips, many students do take advantage of counseling, either in school or out. Sylvia-Ribeiro said teachers became pillars of support.

“I don’t suck up to my teachers, but I like to make relationships with people that I’m going to be at school with for a long time,” said Sylvia-Ribeiro. “My assistant principal, Mr. Edwards, and I are very close; I talk to him about my mental problems.”

With no clear end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic, and mask requirements in Massachusetts public schools set to end on Feb. 28, the mental and emotional well-being of students is still up in the air.

“This is like the great social experiment, right? Who knows?” said Mackenzie. “I will say this: I feel very strongly that kids are resilient and that we will come out of this on the other side.”

Sawyer Smook-Pollitt is a journalist and freelance writer based in New Bedford.

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