The Mental Health Issues Involved with Distance Learning

6/24/2020, 6:30 AM – This article is also excerpted from our local Nextdoor discussion on school reopening. The full Nextdoor discussion is accessible at, but requires both a Nextdoor account to access and is also only geographically accessible from some, not all, neighborhoods in the SMUHSD.

Nextdoor’s discussions are free-form, comments are quickly lost in nested sub-threads, and include a lot of repetition of issues covered previously in the convoluted discussion thread.  Consequently, I have been highlighting on this blog aspects of the conversation that strike me as being of particular importance.

The following comments were written by Joelle Kaufman and reproduced here with her permission.  Some of my remarks during the conversation are also included below.  There were a couple of other participants as well but, as the Board Meeting is coming up soon, and because I promised that Joelle’s remarks would go up this morning, I did not have time to seek out permission from the other participants.  Technically, any post on Nextdoor is in a public forum and could be quoted elsewhere, but I prefer not to operate in that manner on this blog.

Joelle Kaufman introduced herself early in the conversation as follows: “I am a business person – and a parent of a BHS graduate, BHS Senior and an 8th grader who will attend BHS.”  The “survey” which she mentions at the beginning below was conducted by SMUHSD to gauge parent and student sentiment about returning to school this Fall.

Joelle’s comment is followed by my reply, and then her response to my request for available data.  As I received this late last night, I have not had time to review any of the citations that she quotes and leave the evaluation of these links to each reader.


Joelle Kaufman: Without a doubt, the survey was flawed and a less biased, transparent survey should be deployed to get broad parent, student and teacher input.

I think that your blogpost, David Kristofferson, may have missed what I think is the underlying problem with the call, from 75% or 2/3 of the teachers, for 100% distance learning. When we moved dramatically to distance, we know teachers really couldn’t prepare. Teachers begged, pleaded publicly for credit/no-credit to protect the most vulnerable students – and acknowledged that students who were striving (vulnerable or not) would be potentially demoralized and demotivated – but that it was better for everyone’s mental health and more equitable to go credit/no-credit.

Turns out – it was neither. The lack of structure and the lack of expectations disproportionately impacted more vulnerable students who may not have parents who can act as teacher’s aides or tutors (or hire them). The psychological damage of isolation, lack of structure and no purpose is now well documented for the dramatic increases in anxiety and depression. While there are other factors obviously contributing to those problems, the recommendation of the teachers removed key defenses against those mental health consequences. And I don’t think anyone thinks the District is not also culpable – but the recommendation came from teachers and it was not good for the kids. The pleading for 100% distance learning also came from the teachers at the last Board meeting – not from the Board, Administrators. Teachers, who are educators, are not psychologists (although they may feel like them sometimes!).

Psychologists I know were very alarmed by the credit/no-credit and are very alarmed by the 100% distance recommendation. For example – you have NO IDEA who is actually vulnerable – it’s not just socio-economic or IEP/504 or students struggling in school. The largest population of anxious and depressed students are high performing, relatively affluent teens. It’s very sad. The only way to know who is struggling is to SEE them and OBSERVE changes in demeanor and behavior to refer them to a counselor for help.

Now we have another recommendation from teachers – driven by fear for their own safety. And only one teacher in the district has training and experience in distance learning – so we have teachers recommending something that they did not do well in the spring, are not trained to do and have no experience in doing, because they are scared. And it is scary. And when you look at the rate of infection and of complex cases, the adjusted risk is very low (not zero) for people under 65. I’m happy to share with you a model of that risk so you can adjust the assumptions . I do not know how many teachers are over 50 or have a medical condition that significantly increases their risk (my model guessed 45% to be conservative). But all living is risk – driving to school, exposure to influenza, eating unhealthy (but tasty) food, having children on screens fo 3-6 hours per day. My model calculated 2 cases (not deaths – none of those) in the entire SMUHSD given the infection rate and mortality rate by age. Our county is declining in cases – in spite of more interaction – as people exercise personal responsibility.

School will be different as we mitigate risk – for the teachers. The teens are already interacting with each other, as they do and as they need. Let’s educate them as they need as well – in person, in community and teach personal responsibility for community.


David Kristofferson: Hi Joelle, your clear concern is the psychological impact on kids of distance learning, and I think this is what you are saying that I did not address on my blog about school reopening. Yes, that is correct and you make very good points above.

I have been writing for several years, though, about the negative impacts of the AP course load on kids and have noted the irony of the frequent mention of mental health resources by the school district, e.g., even to the point of declaring September to be Suicide Prevention Month a year or two back. See for example my articles “Critical Warnings re AP Classes” at and “Mutual Assured Destruction” at

In the limited time to try to make sense of all of the complicated, competing plans and interests, I unfortunately omitted this important issue, so I apologize.

In order to make a rational decision on the competing concerns of teachers versus students, we need data though.

In the case of mental health issues, privacy concerns may hinder data collection. When dealing with economically disadvantaged children a similar issue arises given the fears of undocumented immigrants.

When one sees pictures of corpses being loaded into refrigeration trucks in New York as a result of COVID-19 and holds this up against non-quantitative claims of increased anxiety and depression, it is hard not to be more moved by the former rather than the latter in the current crisis.

Call numbers to suicide prevention lines are a possible statistic, but can be due to many causes. One would expect the biggest problem right now might be due to adults who are out of work and unable to pay their bills or put food on the table and for people with serious illness and no health insurance.

Have you seen any *real data* pertaining to kids, either nationwide at the very least, or better yet for our decision purposes, in our area?

Without data, I think that most people will have no choice but to conclude that death is a more serious outcome than anxiety and depression. *** I am saying this not to minimize the students’ problems, but only to point out how hard it is to balance all of the competing concerns fairly. ***


Joelle Kaufman: Thank you – I’d love to be a guest blogger on your site – please feel free to repost my comment with the following added data. The studies on mental health impact are too early to be published – but I found a number of potential proxies to emphasize how serious mental health is for our students – and that our schools are their first line of detection. – you can read that Anxiety is 10 points higher since the start of the pandemic. People text CrisisTextLine – Text HOME to 741741 to text with a Crisis Counselor – when they need help.

Their top suggestions for students is to “stay on track” and “stay on a schedule” – both of which were totally undermined in the spring. I recognize that the intention is to do something different in the fall – but without a curriculum designed, by curriculum development professionals, for virtual learning.

Psychologists and psychiatrists are writing about the amount of abuse (domestic and familial) that is occurring.

And finally, California is 10th in the nation for CrisisTextLine activity. Suicidal ideation is down (thankfully as suicide is the leading killer of teens – and Covid-19 represents 0.1 of the suicide deaths). But anxiety, depression, eating disorders and abuse are way up.

The mental health issues can be damaging lifelong and impact a much higher percentage of students than Covid-19. We have to balance the risk – the students need school to learn and for their safety.

Thank you again for the continued civil and informed dialogue and for sharing my thoughts with your audience. Respect.

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Thanks as always for your participation!

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

6 thoughts on “The Mental Health Issues Involved with Distance Learning”

  1. I agree with Joelle Kaufman that the emergency shift to an experimental phase of Distance Learning last semester in SMUHSD was not a model that worked well for students, teachers, and parents. As both a parent of a high school student and a teacher, I experienced many of the challenges imposed by the pandemic emergency school situation: the motivational difficulties of my son working from home and his isolation from peers, as well as my teaching work hours and stress. However, I must disagree with Joelle Kaufman’s assertions about teacher motivation, work ethic, and professional expertise.

    Ms. Kaufman states that “only one teacher in the district has training and experience in distance learning” and that “[teachers] did not do well in the spring, are not trained to do and have no experience in doing.” As a teacher in SMUHSD, I would like to defend my professional expertise and my training. I have been a teacher in the district for 18 years, I have a Masters in Education, and I, as all other teachers in the district, create curriculum for student learning and engagement. During the emergency Distance Learning phase of the spring, I worked with colleagues across the district to create high leverage on-line assignments, I read professional papers on Distance Learning, and I participated in meetings on supporting adolescent mental health during the pandemic crisis. My work hours during the last two and a half months of school were 8-10 hours a day, 6 days a week. Even though I attempted to shut down my computer at dinnertime, I usually stayed up late checking student submissions and writing feedback on assignments. My daily workflow consisted of creation of asynchronous on-line lessons and practices for my students, teaching via weekly Canvas conference classes (similar to Zoom), recreating these classes as Google slides presentations for the majority of students who did not show up to these sessions, reaching out by phone to students and families (up to 2 hours a day) in order to encourage participation in, to check in on students’ and families’ wellbeing, to tutor students individually, to teach students how to use Canvas, and to request computers and WiFi hotspots for students. In addition, I participated in staff meetings, wrote IEPs, and communicated with other staff members to help students access additional supports – mental health, academic counseling, tutoring, and access to food pantries and local agencies.

    Due to this prolonged period of authentic teaching and advisory experiences in a Distance Learning environment, and contrary to Joelle Kaufman’s assumption that there is only one teacher in our district with Distance Learning training and expertise, I submit that almost every teacher in our district has received authentic distance learning training during the last two and a half months of spring semester. In the spring, conditions were not ideal and we CANNOT compare this period of Experimental Distance Learning to what teachers expect and hope to do this fall. We are requesting synchronous on-line classes in which students will be held accountable for attendance and participation. We are requesting time this summer and in the early fall for us to prepare much more thoroughly and in collaboration with one another for a robust Distance Learning model.

    If there were any missteps in the spring, which there were many, due to the emergency nature of the pandemic and a steep learning curve, it is that teachers were given constant directives from their administrators to give the benefit of the doubt to all of their students and give Credit. There is indeed a connection between mental wellbeing and maintaining structure and daily check-ins with one’s teachers and classes. Knowing this, many district teachers and I pushed our students to maintain connection and keep working through the end of the semester, in spite of top-down messaging that encouraged passing all students. For example, for my 151 students in my 5 classes, students were required to do the following to earn Credit for the semester: submit 75% of my on-line reading, writing, listening, and speaking practices; read my feedback and resubmit subpar work; complete (and often retake) on-line quizzes for a superior rating; create and revise projects; and submit a recording of a final presentation. I have no doubt that given support, preparation, and unifying messaging from our district leadership, our teachers will create highly effective and engaging synchronous lessons on-line in the fall.

    Joelle Kaufman also states that “[teachers] recognize that the intention is to do something different in the fall – but without a curriculum designed, by curriculum development professionals, for virtual learning.” I hope that my examples above serve to demonstrate that teachers ARE curriculum development professionals. Teachers are trained to develop curriculum, bringing into consideration all aspects of their students’ lives, backgrounds, identities, prior knowledge, languages, psychological development, learning differences, and family situations. This is the definition of a teacher. I hope that parents can understand that this is who we are, this is what we have trained for, and this is what we do each and every day with each student and with each class.

    I too feel deeply concerned about the psychological wellbeing of my students, and I have written extensively about it in my emails to my administrators and to district leadership. Ms. Kaufman is concerned that teachers may not be inclined to think about the psychological consequences of the Credit / No Credit option that the majority of district teachers supported last semester, stating that “you have NO IDEA who is actually vulnerable – it’s not just socio-economic or IEP/504 or students struggling in school. The largest population of anxious and depressed students are high performing, relatively affluent teens. It’s very sad. The only way to know who is struggling is to SEE them and OBSERVE changes in demeanor and behavior to refer them to a counselor for help.” Later, she adds, “Teachers, who are educators, are not psychologists (although they may feel like them sometimes!)”.

    I do not believe that the anxiety and depression among high school students in spring was due to the lack of grades, however, I do believe that daily structure, expectations, and check-ins with teachers and peers should have been imposed for our students who were able to (and most of mine were – I teach mostly middle to low income and more marginalized students in our district). While teachers are not licensed psychologists, education departments often work in tandem with the psychology departments at universities. Teachers are required to take psychology classes in order to earn a credential. In addition, we are often first responders and notice when students need mental health supports. Teachers and counselors in SMUHSD were the primary advocates for more mental health resources for our students before the pandemic, and we will continue to do so. I hope that parents can understand that teachers deal with trauma, anxiety, and depression first hand in the classroom and that we can continue doing this on-line. Many students do indeed feel helpless without the acknowledgement and reassurances that grades can and do provide, but this is a societal issue that families and teachers both must contend with. I recommend reading Madeline Levine, a Bay Area psychologist, who specializes in adolescent psychology and writes extensively about the difficulties affluent teenagers have due to familial and societal ideas of what is considered “success” and the limiting of opportunities to engage with real life challenges. Ms. Kaufman contends that teachers must be able to “SEE” and “OBSERVE” our students in order to get them support. I agree and this is why I support the synchronous Distance Learning model. I will be more able to see and interact with my students 2-3 times a week. The synchronous learning time in the 100% Distance Learning model will be longer than in the blended model, and I will actually be able to create many online activities for students to interact with one another as well as with me. On the contrary, if I am in class, I will need to keep 6 feet away from all my students, and they from each other. We will be in masks, physically distanced in our individual desks, afraid of each other’s air, afraid of the lack of proper ventilation and windowless classrooms, and afraid of moving to the next classroom. Teachers’ voices will be muffled; facial expressions covered. No pair work, no group work, no games, no Socratic Seminars, no writing on the board, no manipulatives, flashcards, or cultural realia, no hands-on labs, no teacher walking by to observe student work. A walk to the bathroom will become an agonizing chore in hygiene and waiting in line. As students and teachers work across classrooms, our computers will mostly remain on our desks connecting us to the lesson, and to each other. Coming to school to experience this type of learning will be expensive, frustrating, isolating, and possibly frightening. This is not the social or psychological experience we all desire to support student learning and mental wellbeing.

    I am also deeply alarmed that Ms. Kaufman believes that teachers do not wish to return to in-class “teaching” because we are “driven by fear” for our “own safety”. I am concerned for my own safety, and that of my husband and my elderly mother-in-law whom we take care of in our home. However, I am equally concerned with the idea that my students’ family members take a risk every day that their children come to school and interact with peers and staff members. I cannot guarantee that my students will obey protocols and I do not want our school district to become liable to the inevitable spike in Covid-19 cases that will occur once in-school learning is in session. I would rather take a slow approach to coming back to school, as we monitor the health situation at the local, county, and state level. We all want to come back, but I personally could not live with the idea that my classes spread the virus to a family member and led to a death in the family. This would be psychologically harmful to me, yes, but devastating to affected students.

    I hope that my examples and explanations can help parents understand the difficulties that we are facing in the fall. Thank you, David Kristofferson, for sharing what parents are worried about on your blog so that teachers can dispel some of the misunderstandings about distance learning that have built up since last semester’s pandemic response. We absolutely should have a more fact-based and nuanced discussion of what teachers already do and what teachers can do differently in the fall to engage all students effectively and productively. I hope that we can rely on the support of our district leadership and the families we serve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maestra, while we are on the mental health topic, I had a brief offline discussion with Joelle about the effect of AP classes on students which has been a main concern of mine since I began this blog. She alludes to this problem as well in her comment about affluent and high-performing students. I see too many students advised by counselors to take a “challenging” course load who stay up all hours of the night to do so.

      I have not only exchanged emails with Dr. Skelly but have had a couple of face-to-face meetings with him on the topic. We leave agreeing to disagree as he usually states that there are many others who disagree with me and think that AP represents a high quality curriculum. I have never been able to get him to respond point-by-point to the numerous problems that I have frequently encountered with these classes for the last 8+ years in my tutoring work. The first article on this blog was, and I have written numerous others since. It is 100% clear that the College Board has entrenched itself as an essential part of the road to college, so my quest currently seems quixotic at best.

      My AP experience is with the physics, calculus and chemistry classes. I am not sure if you teach any AP classes, but I would be curious if you have a view on this issue. I am also concerned about the equity issue that these classes represent as they clearly favor those who can afford private tutoring. This doesn’t mean that we should “dumb down” curriculum. Instead, if we could ever overcome the grip that the College Board has on the admissions process, I would like to see honors classes where the teacher would control the curriculum and not have to move at such a frenetic pace to cover an excessive amount of material. It is this fast pace that makes outside tutoring a necessity for almost all students. Such a change would greatly reduce or even eliminate the private tutoring industry which did not exist when I went to high school in the late 60s. The current pace of the AP program leads to cramming, cheating, poor retention of material after the exam, and, what bothers me most as someone interested in exciting kids about math and science, frequently results in students who are just relieved to get these classes over and done with instead of wanting to learn more.

      Of course, if this subject is too hot to handle, I understand completely. You can also comment privately through the Contact form on the blog.


      1. Adolescent mental health and academic stress that comes with multiple honors / AP courses is a well-researched topic in Madeline Levine’s books (The Price of Privilege, Teach Your Children Well, and Ready or Not). Having taught students taking 3, 4, and 5 AP courses at a time, I can attest to the incredible build up of stress and fallout of intrinsic motivation for learning that high schools students are burdened with. I appreciate that more independent schools are moving away from AP courses altogether and are more inclined to offer topical seminars that capitalize on individual teachers’ areas of expertise and students’ interests. I hope that our public schools follow suit. Our schools’ course offerings have narrowed considerably over the years with budget cuts and support for the one size fits all college track. Hands on experiential offerings and specialized courses are greatly reduced for our millenials (even Computer Science classes disappeared in many of our Silicon Valley schools in the 90’s!). Most students, even very talented students, burn out quickly junior and senior year when feeling the pressure to take a heavy AP course load. And though it may be true that our schools do have a few students who can “handle” taking 3-5 AP courses in one year, but why should they? The curriculum is narrow; the courses are often not as interesting or as deep as an equivalent college course; and they can become stress factories. I am fairly certain that teachers would far prefer to teach high level honors type classes in which we can choose the topics, the projects, and the level of intensity for our students. While there are very brilliant AP (and IB) teachers and courses in our district, teachers would appreciate more academic freedom and students would be much more motivated by a diverse selection of topical classes that appeal to their interests. I think about student motivation a lot in developing lessons and in watching my teenage son mature into new interests inside and out of the classroom. In one blog post I wrote about the value of being able to participate a non-standardized test based honors class.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The following comments are from the Nextdoor conversation cited in the article above with the author’s permission.

    Nancy Hsieh:

    The more I read, the more complicated this subject gets and the more challenging it seems to come up with a plan for fall that balances safety and well-being for all involved, as well as addresses inequities for students who are homeless, in foster care, from low income families, have IEP/504s, English Language Learners, and especially if they are also people of color.

    I came across two articles that hopefully can help with this decision.
    In particular I hope that you, Kevin Nelson, read these because of your influential role with the teachers. I’m interested to hear your thoughts and whether/how you think we can incorporate some of the info into the ultimate plan

    An NPR piece from May 2020 about Children’s mental health suffering due to school closures.

    An NPR piece from today about what we can learn from child care centers that stayed open during shelter in place.

    David Kristofferson:

    Nancy, I just read both articles and found them informative. My response to “Start Normal !” on my blog reviewed Binetti’s cited UK site that collects pediatric COVID-19 data and came to similar conclusions about younger children like those in daycare. However the site also cited a French outbreak involving 15-17 year olds, so they are hesitant to give unqualified endorsements. It is also apparent that there are methodological and statistical problems with many studies in the area.

    The first article about mental health is very concerning. If you don’t mind I’d like to copy your comments and links here to the Comments section on my blog (or you could also do so yourself if you wish).

    Nancy Hsieh:

    Feel free to post my comments on your blog. Thanks


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