A post-lockdown pandemic of violence is spreading through our schools

We must put the well-being of those who are finding it hard to adjust to school after so much social isolation ahead of academics

You did not have to be a genius to realize that this was about to happen. The other week, following a decision that went into immediate effect, high school students in Pennsylvania went back to remote learning from home. That decision, which aims to protect both the staff and the students, was made after violent altercations broke out between students, including in the hallways of some schools and in the parking lots. 

At one school, a teacher was assaulted when three violent fistfights took place simultaneously in the hallways, one of which also continued in the student parking lot. In another violent altercation at a high school outside Columbus, Ohio, nine teachers were injured and seven students were charged with aggravated riot. In total, 97 violent incidents involving guns have been reported in 2021, which led to eight deaths and 35 injuries — compared to 29 incidents in 2019.

An article published recently in The Washington Post included interviews with teachers and experts from across the United States who expressed their views on the violent incidents at the schools. According to them, social distancing is a risk factor for students who have a propensity for violent acts. Last May, the US Department of Homeland Security warned of a possible upward trend in the violence, which also stems from the fact that many students were denied access to mental health services because of the financial hardships faced by their families during the pandemic.

The prolonged period of social isolation has also had far-reaching implications. It appears that students who were socially isolated for a long time lost their tolerance or verbal response capabilities, and are now inclined to resort to physical violence in order to solve problems.

The above-cited cases in the United States as well as the sense that school faculty members have here in Israel, which will be described below, indicate a violent post-traumatic situation caused by the pandemic. This is another aspect of long COVID that is not spoken about, but one that is no less powerful and widespread — namely, violence that releases the silence imposed on all us during the pandemic, defiance that expresses the frustration, and a clash that reflects the individual’s lack of trust in the different systems and in the future — all of which manifest themselves in an acute manner in the school microcosm.

It appears that violent incidents at educational institutions are also on the rise in Israel. Teachers and principals from schools around the country are reporting a sharp decline in the sense of personal security among both students and teachers. This situation is fueled by undesirable behaviors, verbal violence, vandalism, and fights in the hallways.

After many long months of remote learning, the system, due to insufficiently clear reasons, chose to focus most of its efforts on filling in academic gaps without addressing the equally significant emotional and behavioral damages. The coronavirus pandemic shut down the world and undermined the sense of personal security, making it difficult to return to our normal routines. Similar to other pandemic-related post-traumatic symptoms that affect all spheres of our lives — whether on the road, in the discourse for and against vaccinations and masks, or in the economic discourse — the phenomenon is spreading like wildfire in the schools as well. The lack of psychological counseling and support during the pandemic made its way into a pressure cooker that is now seething and at a boiling point, trying in any way possible to be released.

The toxic pressure and the effects of the lockdowns and isolations, which are a major risk factor, are visible in the schools. Students, parents, and teachers are finding it hard to return from social isolation and are dealing with the requirements of the system and the need to readjust to the schools’ rules, which did not apply to them for going on two years.

Notwithstanding the considerable importance of bridging academic gaps and administering tests, that race has to be stopped now. Even though it may be difficult, school principals, faculty members, and homeroom teachers must look into the souls of the young people and talk to them about their feelings, find individualized solutions to their needs and, above all, convey soothing and comforting messages that contain the pressure. Then, very slowly and together with the students, it will be possible to create a new routine that is adapted to the reality of our lives in the age of a virus that is still in our midst.

Emphasis should be placed on building relationships and creating safe spaces in a way that enables educators to see and understand each child based on his or her needs. Going back to a full calendar of exams, disciplinary measures and their strict enforcement by the school staff only increase the pressure and cause frustration that is now being vented violently in these parts.

About the Author
Dani Fessler is the CEO of the ATID Education and Schools Network.
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