A Vancouver Island University psychology professor will conduct research on the effect of COVID-19 pandemic on learning and mental health of students. (Stock photo)

A Vancouver Island University psychology professor will conduct research on the effect of COVID-19 pandemic on learning and mental health of students. (Stock photo)

VIU prof researching pandemic’s effects on mental health and education of grade schoolers

Researcher hopes to ask 90-120 families about their experiences over time

With virus exposures in schools and changing education models due to COVID-19, a university instructor in Nanaimo is interested in examining effects of the pandemic on student learning and emotional well-being.

Marla Morden, a VIU psychology professor and developmental psychologist, received $6,000 in B.C. Ministry of Health COVID-19 research grant money and wants to hear from families, particularly with kindergarten to Grade 4 students, about impacts of home-schooling, distance learning and classroom environments during the pandemic.

Morden and her team will be asking if distance-learning students will experience more isolation from their peers, and if there will be related behavioural and mental health impacts. If another suspension of in-class instruction occurs, would that disruption cause mental health issues for those students and how long would that last, researchers wonder. Morden also hopes to hear about positive experiences and unexpected benefits of education models that families have selected.

“I think we will see some behaviour and some mental health impacts for children because that’s what studies and parents are telling us, but I’m not sure how long-lasting it will be,” Morden said. “I’m hoping that we‘ll see even as early as next fall, or the following year, that children who are resilient will be back to normal, but it’s hard to say.”

Information will be gathered through “standard psychological-type surveys,” such as ones to determine parents and caregivers’ stress levels, and open-ended questions to both children and caregivers.

“We’re just giving them prompts and then we’re asking them to share their experiences about going to school this year…” said Morden. “We might ask, ‘How have your social relationships been? How have the teachers been? Have you found that there have been enough supports?’ and then just letting them share their experiences in a more open-ended way.”

Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district has seen an increase of distance education enrolment in 2020-21, with K-9 registration recently halted due to demand. Denise Wood, teachers’ union president, said while she hasn’t heard from K-4 teachers about students expressing fears about coronavirus, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

“There’s high anxiety levels throughout the schools, at all levels,” said Wood.

RELATED: ‘Unprecedented’ rise in distance-ed students due to COVID-19

Students might not be explicitly expressing fears about the virus, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned, added Susan Riordan, junior school principal at Aspengrove School, an independent school in Lantzville.

“The age group I work with, they’re not likely to come and say, ‘Oh hi Mrs. Riordan, I’m really worried about COVID-19,’ but we might see anxious behaviours a little bit more…” said Riordan of her primary students. “They’re asking to wash their hands when they might not normally have been the type to do that. They might get upset if someone gets too close to them.”

Subjects will be tracked for five years, according to Morden, and while it may be hard to isolate the effects of the coronavirus, there could be other benefits to the research.

“It could help us to see if there’s any difference between the behaviour of mental health of children who are home-schooled and who go to [bricks-and-mortar] school,” said Morden. “We could see that there’s no difference there, so that would be really great, or we could see that one group has an advantage.”

Anyone wanting to take part in the research can e-mail Morden at marla.morden@viu.ca. She’s hoping to get in contact with somewhere between 90 and 120 families.

“I know a lot of families are really excited about this research and think it’s really important, so I want them to be aware that it’s happening,” she said.

For more information, visit wordpress.viu.ca/mordenlab.

RELATED: SD68 distance-ed registration on hold for now

RELATED: VIU faculty look at COVID-19 impact on community



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