‘We’re just surviving’: Report details COVID’s long-term impacts on Philly students

Mikayla Jones, 17, a rising senior at Central High School in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of Children First)

Mikayla Jones, 17, a rising senior at Central High School in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of Children First)

Mikayla Jones has spent most of her high school experience so far during a global pandemic. It’s not how the 17-year-old rising senior pictured this time in her life.

“I feel like I had this fairy tale dream of what high school was supposed to be, and due to COVID, I didn’t really get that,” she said. “I left high school in freshman year with a group full of friends, and I came back without them.”

Child advocates and health care providers in Philadelphia say Jones’ experience is reflected in a new report that shows the COVID-19 pandemic’s deep toll on the city’s children, with long-term consequences that could become worse if action isn’t taken.

Children First, a nonprofit organization that focuses on children in the Philadelphia area, published “COVID’s Impact on Philadelphia Children: The Case for an Ambitious Rebound” Monday.

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“Our children continue to face persistent structural challenges to their safety, their physical well-being, and their mental health well-being,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of Children First.

Demand for mental health services among teenagers rose significantly during the pandemic, national data show.

In the 2019-2020 school year, about 17% of calls or tips made to Pennsylvania’s Safe2Say hotline involved a student whose immediate physical wellbeing or safety was at risk.

That number rose to 37% of calls and tips after March 2020, when COVID-19 became a global pandemic, according to the Children First report.

Cooper said isolation, the loss of a family member or friend to COVID-19, and a spike in gun violence could all be contributing factors. Calls for suicide increased 62% in Philadelphia alone from one school year to the next.

The report also found that the pandemic caused students to fall behind in math and reading, and the number of children enrolled in early childhood education programs dropped.

Report authors recommend the city invest more resources and support in school-based behavioral health services, which students said can be limited.

Jones said upon returning to in-person learning at Central High School her junior year after a period of virtual or remote instruction, she said it wasn’t clear where students could go to get help for non-academic support.

“It was at the end of the school year the first time I met my counselor. I walked into her office and I just cried. She didn’t even know my name,” Jones said. “I was never introduced to her. No one ever said, ‘Okay, this is your counselor, if you need help, then go to her.’ I just took it upon myself to find someone, because I needed someone at that moment.”

Fatoumata Sidibe, a 16-year-old student at Bodine High School, said the large counselor-to-student ratio is a problem at her school.

“I kept stressing that we need more counselors and we need them to be aware of our problems,” she said.

Fatoumata Sidibe, 16, is a rising junior at Bodine High School in Philadelphia. She spoke about a lack of counselors at her school during a panel discussion Mon., Aug. 8, 2022. (Courtesy of Children First)

Even when students did get time with a counselor, Sidibe said the focus often stayed on academic concerns.

“We don’t really have a connection with the counselors so far, and we haven’t even had that conversation at all to focus on the students’ mental health,” she said. “It’s like they focus on the people who have more problems than [those] they feel are thriving already. We’re not thriving. We’re just surviving.”

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Dr. Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors Consortium in Philadelphia and the Dr. Ala Stanford Center for Health Equity, said funding alone won’t solve the problem.

“It’s really the coordination, for example, of federal government and city government and superintendent and nonprofit all in one space,” she said. “We have to hold one another accountable.”

Stanford, now a region director at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the city needed to partner more closely with community health organizations already filling the gaps left by the school districts, and that might include exploring new contracts.

“The school district has used the same contractors forever, the same hospitals, the same nonprofits,” she said. “There are a lot of folks out there that did the work without the money to give the kids what they needed until they waited for those resources to come.”

Stanford, addressing Philadelphia School District Superintendent Tony Watlington directly on Monday during a panel discussion, added, “Find those places, because those folks are committed and did it without the funding.”

Child advocates, health providers, and Philadelphia school officials met Mon., Aug. 8, 2022 to discuss COVID-19’s impact and long-term consequences on the city’s students, including gaps in access to behavioral health services. (L to R) Tony Watlington, superintendent of the Philadelphia School District; Kimberly Ali, commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services; and Dr. Ala Stanford, region director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Courtesy of Children First)

Watlington said his office plans to take a “hard look” at these concerns, including “who we’re coordinating with in terms of contractual services to ensure it’s not just the same people all the time to have a bigger tent, if you will.”

The superintendent said his office will be looking at putting together findings and recommendations for improvements and changes over the next 30 to 45 days.

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If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. The hotline is staffed 24/7 by trained counselors who can offer free, confidential support. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can call 1-800-799-4889. Help can also be accessed through the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741-741.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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