Not-so ‘mature behavior’? Covid-19 leaves lasting effects on students’ academic, social skills


Sofia Kim , Staff Writer

“We are still catching up, not just academically, but also in social skills,” World Languages Department Chair Pilar Valencia said. “How do I organize my time? How do I behave in the classroom? We have to find a way to adapt again.”

Nearly three years since the start of the pandemic in 2020, students continue to experience negative consequences within the classroom, including disrupted learning, increased social anxiety, and lowered attention spans. In a poll conducted by The Record with 41 responses from Middle and Upper Division faculty, 98% have seen a decrease in their students’ social/emotional skills and 65% have seen a decrease in their students’ academic abilities.

Recent analyses of 42 studies across 15 countries found that global education losses amounted to about one third of a school year, according to an article in The New York Times. Those deficits were disproportionately borne by lower-income students, though Covid’s effects are visible at this school as well.

On March 9, 2020, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly announced that all divisions would begin spring break early due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases. This was the last “normal” school day for over two years.

That school year finished exclusively online. Teachers modified curriculums to optimize teaching and lesson plans; students adapted to learning entirely in their homes. In the UD, full credit classes met synchronously twice a week and assigned asynchronous work the other days. Despite these abrupt changes, students still received letter grades at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. However, teachers had difficulty administering assessments online due to the risk that students would violate principles of academic integrity, Valencia said. 

The MD had a different online experience. For the first few weeks, students learned asynchronously, handing in assignments online. Grades in each class transitioned from letter grades to pass/fail. The MD began to incorporate synchronous lessons into the schedule after a few weeks, holding one synchronous class a day.

By the 2020-2021 year, students returned to in-person learning for a substantial portion of the school year. Physical Education Department Chair Amy Mojica said that the school’s exceptional resources permitted students to return. “As a school, we were extremely lucky to have resources which brought us together,” she said. “With the barriers, surfaces, masks, and testing, our school went over the top to make sure people were given the opportunity to feel as safe as possible.”

From Thanksgiving until the two weeks following winter break, the UD administered HM Online 2.0, a hybrid of asynchronous and synchronous learning. Once again, each full credit class met twice a week on Zoom for 45 minutes while the other two days a week consisted of asynchronous work and lessons. Like the year before, teachers adjusted their curriculums to fit this schedule, especially for asynchronous lessons.

In 2021-2022, the school returned to complete in-person instruction, with the exception of a mask mandate and mandatory COVID testing each week. Students were only permitted to attend classes virtually if they tested positive for COVID-19. Yet, even as Zoom school becomes a thing of the past, the long-term effects of the pandemic remain visible.


For current sophomores, online school began in seventh grade and disrupted their transition to the Upper Division. “A lot of the middle school experience is learning how to prepare for high school and because half of ours was online, we didn’t have as much preparation as anyone would have liked,” Brianna Wells (10) said. “There were definitely people who didn’t really do their asynchronous work, and I feel like that carried into how we approached our work in high school.”

Tatum Behrens (10) got as much out of the asynchronous work as she put into it, she said. “In the back of my mind, I was thinking about high school the next year, so I knew I still needed to stay on top of my work,” she said. 

Despite the unusual learning circumstances, Head of Upper Division Dr. Jessica Levenstein has not observed a large decline in the quality of students’ work as a result of online school, she said. However, especially for underclassmen, writing in-class essays and taking timed tests was more difficult because students were not accustomed to taking in-class assessments while learning asynchronously, she said.

During online instruction, there were several aspects of learning a language that could not be met, Valencia said. “Zoom is not an ideal space to practice a language, and recording is not the same as having a conversation.” After returning in-person, classes covered topics that could not be taught as well online, such as language structure and practicing conversations. 

For the English department, virtual teaching was a more natural transition compared to other subjects, English Department Chair Vernon Wilson said. “Compared to chemistry or calculus, English teachers tend not to use the board as much. Even though it was not the same, we could still have discussions on Zoom — reading texts and putting ideas in the chat.”

Wilson said he acknowledges teachers’ leniency during online learning. “We had conversations about, hey, we’re in a global pandemic. There are bigger, bigger fish to fry than an A or an A- right now,” he said. 

However, Wilson also recognizes the academic effects of these years while transitioning to a post-pandemic environment, he said. “There was that one or two years of pandemic where we did what we needed to and we wanted to be together, have school, whatever that looked like,” Wilson said. “We phase that out, but at the same time what that means is that simultaneously we’re phasing back in the rigor.”

During online school, material was more difficult to learn, which made it difficult to transition back to in-person classes and assessments, Joann Yu (11) said. “Specifically for math, the subject is cumulative, so if you don’t understand one topic, you can’t understand anything else after.” Yu also experienced an increase in class rigor after returning in-person, but she partly attributes it to the natural curriculum. “As time goes on, through the grades, work gets harder in general.”

As a result of online school, teachers have seen deficits in students’ learning that they must now address while teaching in-person, Head of Middle Division Javaid Khan said. Currently, the MD departments meet to discuss the curriculum after every 10 day cycle. Faculty members discuss post-pandemic learning, while department chairs and division heads are tasked with identifying the skills that students should possess upon entering each grade. “From eighth to ninth grade, what are the skills that we expect students to have, and what are the skills that we expose them to during this year?” 

Sixth Grade Dean John McNally sees the pandemic’s effects mostly in classroom group work. Before the pandemic, history and English teachers taught through discussions and activities. “Now, students are programmed to absorb information through a video or reading as opposed to learning collectively,” he said.

To help MD students’ transition to the UD, the history department is including more in-class writing assessments, McNally said. “We’re moving away from short answer style quizzes, involving a lot of memorization, and toward assessing the writing process.”


Students are delayed in the development of their social and emotional skills, Psychologist Liz Westphal said. “All students lost a year or more of typical in-person social interactions due to the pandemic, and everyday social interactions are crucial for the normal development of social and emotional skills in adolescents and teenagers.”

During the pandemic, students turned to using more technology, which affected their social skills when transitioning back to an in-person format after a long period of time. “We were all growing up and I definitely think people are very different after Covid,” Wells said. “It was different for people who were already older and had developed personalities compared to those who were younger and were more impacted by it.”

Sophia Paley (11) believes younger students were affected by the pandemic the most, she said. “A lot of the kids now are struggling to turn off their screens because they are not used to interacting in person.” While high schoolers are also struggling with an increase in in person communication, younger students missed out on vital years of their social development, she said.

Nara Brunink (9) is more introverted nowadays since it was harder to socialize during the pandemic, she said. “As a result of not having in-person connections with others for a long time, I feel that people have shifted more towards social media. I am one of few people I know who does not have TikTok, which goes to show how prevalent social media has become.”

Brunink also feels like her grade is less mature than other grades, she said. The pandemic definitely took away some of my teenage years, but I am now getting that back in high school.” 

Computer Science Teacher Avery Feingold has noticed more self-isolation amongst students. “They don’t acknowledge the presence of others to start with and the default has become self-isolation to a little to some degree,” they said. In the classroom, Feingold notices there are fewer interactions between students compared to pre-pandemic, and students have defaulted to working on their own when assigned something, they said.

Yu has also noticed a decline in students’ social skills. “When online, you don’t communicate with any humans, so when going back to in-person, people scream at each other a lot more,” she said.

English teacher Jennifer Little has seen students exhibit more behavioral issues, she said. During class, Little has noticed more students with their laptops open and side conversations between students, particularly among underclassmen. “There’s less ability to focus and sustain focus on one thing,” Little said. “Those are pretty pivotal years of learning how to be more mature as a human being in addition to academics. I think it hit them particularly hard.”

Levenstein has observed that student anxiety is more common after the pandemic, she said. “The major difference we saw was a definite rise in anxiety around things that [students] hadn’t done quite so much during the pandemic,” she said. “We saw more intense anxiety responses to things that past generations of students were more used to doing.”

Little has noticed an increase in student anxiety with regard to grades, she said. To adjust the curriculum, she has created a portfolio system where students receive feedback on their essay, but still have an opportunity to create a final portfolio for the official grade, she said.

In addition, there has been an uptick in student anxiety about looks, Westphal said. “Some students were self-conscious about what they looked like, how they were being perceived, how they were being understood behind a mask,” Westphal said.

Paley has also noticed the negative effects of mask wearing on student anxiety, she said. “For some people, it just concealed what they looked like. But then I think for other people it became a whole other part of their appearance that they had to worry about each day.”

For students who are in developmental stages of their life, the pandemic definitely impacted their emotional experiences in middle and high school, Mojica said. “We had weird stages where we were in forced isolation and everyone desperately wanted to stay connected,” she said. “And then everybody had different comfort levels when it came to hanging out with a certain number of people.” 


For Valencia, the most meaningful part of the pandemic was reevaluating the importance of classroom time. “It was a commodity that we never thought anybody was gonna take away,” she said. “The most important takeaway was in the meaning of community, the meaning of friendship, and time spent together.”

The pandemic gives people the opportunity to rebuild culture, Feingold said. “We don’t have to just fall into whatever culture grows out of the bad times. We can intentionally set norms, we can build the space and the world that we want to be in.”

Anonymous Upper and Middle Division faculty respond to The Record’s poll:

Students learned avoidance behaviors during zoom school: before the pandemic, when teachers asked students questions, they would try to think about their answer. Now, they’ve learned to give the first wrong answer that comes to mind in the hope that the teacher moves on. Since teachers were feeling burnout during zoom schooling, they didn’t push students to think and elaborate on answers in class as much as they used to, so students’ avoidance actually worked.

It used to be the norm to actually work together with other students on classwork assignments. Breakout rooms really failed to replicate the experience of being at a table with your peers, and so we are now in a place where students default to staring alone at their work and feeling helpless if they can’t immediately do it on their own. 

Students overwhelmingly try to “”remember”” rather than understand, leading to far worse performance on any tasks that require more than rote memorization. 

Socio-emotionally, students are more avoidant and selfish. Students seem to be less interested in being together for its own sake.

I have seen significant decreases in focus and attention span and diminished ability to regulate emotions and behavior in my classes (especially the younger grades). I also see a decrease in student resilience and a big increase in anxiety about grades and grade-consciousness. Nobody seems to be having fun in classes anymore! It used to be that we were learning AND having fun together, but now I feel like my class is interrupting fun students feel like they could have outside class and causing students stress.

There’s a basic expectation for how a Horace Mann student should be, in terms of behavior in consistency with our core values, that students are having some more trouble meeting than in the pre-Covid years. I’m thinking about students ability to embrace the spirit of inquiry and exploration in class through the love of learning (life of the mind), their ability to focus and do their best consistently on activities with peers in class (mature behavior), and their ability to be kind to each other consistently (mutual respect) all seems more inconsistent than I noticed before at HM. 

I have not seen what I would call a decrease in social/emotional skills, but a delay in the development of students’ social/emotional development. 10th grade students grappling are the social and emotional dilemmas I saw in 9th grade students prior to the pandemic;  11th grade students are grappling with emotional and social dilemmas that brought pre-pandemic 10th grade students into the Counseling office (and so on). All students lost a year or more of in-person social interactions to the pandemic, and with that they lost the lived experiences that feed their social and emotional development. Social and emotional development was delayed for all students as a result of the pandemic. 

Students are less adept at handling all types of social situations, unaware of traditional school & social group etiquette, and they are less capable of working in groups or collaborating with others. They interrupt their peers frequently and generally are worse at listening when someone else speaks.