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David Jacobson

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus is said to have said, “The only constant in life is change.” He seems to have been right…but even he could not have anticipated the recent pace of change.

Between the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down schools – and much of the rest of our social and work lives – and then the socio-political unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, events over the last five months have created great uncertainty. In turn, those events and the resulting uncertainty have disrupted traditional academic education.

Still, Saint Thomas Academy persists in applying its four pillars – all-boys, Catholic, military, and college prep – to providing students the best education possible. The Academy’s community remains tightly knit, creating a safe haven where faculty and staff know and care for students even in the day and age of distance learning.

Three staff critical to that effort are School Counselors Justin Larson and Jake Ingalls and School Psychologist Tom Richardson. Their training, expertise, and last five months of experience position them to contextualize the impact of education amid uncertainty, looking both backward and forward in time.

In mid-March, Ingalls got a sudden taste of what students would face in terms of uncertainty, when, as he wryly observed, “I realized that in grad school, I never took a class in how to deal with students doing distance learning during a pandemic.”

Though unprepared for that specific circumstance, Ingalls, Larson, and Richardson were equipped to address the resulting anxiety. Even in the best of times, Richardson noted, “We have a lot of students suffering from anxiety to begin with. We have plenty of high-achieving students with anxiety.”

Added Ingalls: “Uncertainty is similar to anxiety, and anxiety is probably the largest diagnosis I see on a daily basis. There’s anxiety in a lot of students for a multitude of reasons—grades, college, parents, social life, personal life.”

Still in his first year at the Academy, Ingalls said, “There were some parents and students that I hadn’t met, because up until March 11, they were straight-A students who probably didn’t even know where my office was. But they started to struggle.”

Several factors exacerbated the anxiety brought by the pandemic and the switch to distance learning. “Boys and men struggle to ask for help,” Larson said. “I’ve had a few reach out, but my gut feeling is that underlying this situation, there was quite a lot of depression and anxiety last spring. It was a combination of not being able to see their friends, being in quarantine and locked down, that loss of freedom, and a loss of socialization. Then, our spring sports season being cancelled was a major contributor to guys re-evaluating their self-worth and how that’s tied to athletics and competition. A lot of guys struggled when that was taken away from them, because it removed some of their identity.”

Individual family circumstances also played a role in students’ reactions to the uncertainty, Ingalls said. “There were a few students who just kind of fell off the face of the earth for a week or two. I’d email them, the teachers would email them, and nothing, nothing. A couple of them it turned out had a death in the family, unfathomable sadness, and not able to have a funeral. A couple other students, it turns out they were at home while their parents were at work, and they were in charge of themselves and maybe a younger brother or sister and on top of all that they were expected to be a high school student.”

Richardson added: “We had some families with a parent out of the country, deployed and things like that. You may have a family with four kids in four different age groups. How do you start to restructure the family routines at home?”

Against that backdrop, Ingalls, Larson, and Richardson contributed mightily to the resources, videos, recommendations, town halls, and webinars collected at https://www.cadets.com/parents/parent-portal/covid-19/sta-stories. The counselors hosted dozens of parents at a Zoom presentation now housed within that page titled “Cooped up in COVIDLand.”

“That presentation gave parents ideas on what to look for in their boys and some resources on how to help,” Larson said. “There were also a lot of two- or three-minute videos from myself and Jake. I felt like I was turning into a vlogger.”

The online material and other advice and support that the counselors dispensed directly to students and their families fall into two major categories: contextualizing emotion and providing the tools needed to move forward effectively. As an example of contextualizing emotion, one of Ingalls’ early videos emphasized that “uncertainty is a form of anticipatory grief, to help kids understand that the feeling they’re feeling right now is actually grief because they don’t know if they’re going to have normalcy again. They’re grieving the loss of normalcy and the loss of potential opportunities.

“First and foremost is the uncertainty about whether or not they are going to be in school with their friends, with their brothers in the fall, whether they’ll be able to play football, soccer, all those things that teens and students look forward to so much. They’re not sure whether they’re going to get to experience some of the major stepping-stones of adolescence at school with their friends.”

Richardson emphasized the importance of understanding the very nature of anxiety and uncertainty. “When you’re anxious and thinking through ten different scenarios, it’s hard to make plans and be consistent,” he said. “It leads to less efficiency in how students do things, how they plan out their days. It looks overwhelming to them.”

The advice that serves as antidote to the technical and academic issues entailed in learning amid uncertainty focuses on structure, routine, tips and tools for coping, and learning to accept differences in process and results. As Richardson summarized, “We had families already facing challenges, maybe with service overseas, and you just add this additional layer of doing education at home, and it wasn’t really possible. We kind of said to people, ‘You’re not going to be able to do it all. You’re just not. Don’t expect it to be the same as what it was.’ Everybody at Saint Thomas wants the highest standards, but we had to have flexibility to let families take care of themselves, too.”

Ingalls’ take on that approach was to help students “understand it was OK to be less than perfect, that you don’t have to do every thing, every day, all the time, that you have a weekly deadline, and you still need to take time to be a kid.”

Richardson noted differences across age groups in the ability to adapt to the new circumstances. “Some of the older kids who had already had some distance learning and had those systems set up could keep up. The younger kids were not quite prepared for that independence. The relationship with teachers is so important, and that would keep them going day to day. When you switch to parents telling you when to get going, that relationship is different. Some kids lost their drive. We had kids who would be doing pretty well in school, but with the switch to distance learning, they didn’t have the same structure in place, and they just could not keep up.”

Ingalls also championed structure and routine. “While kids were still dealing with depression and anxiety and all that, they also had to deal with the loss of the structure that they crave so much, and that’s provided so readily at school. When they’re at home learning, left to their own devices, that structure is gone. Parents try as much as they can to provide it, but it’s just not the same as being at school in uniform.

“The big thing for me was to help them develop a routine, where they could have daily checkpoints with themselves and with me to boost accountability. ‘I know I’ve got to meet with Mr. Ingalls at 1 p.m., and I have to have this and this and this done.‘ Treat every day like a normal school day, wake up at the same time, eat lunch at the same time, and parcel out your classes the way you would if you were at school.”

In addition to rediscovering and perhaps even reimagining structure and routine, here are specific tips and tools from Ingalls, Larson, and Richardson:

Pray

Use the Calm app

Do breathing exercises

Refer to ChildMind.org

Write in a gratitude journal or “what went well” journal

Read the book titled Fighting Invisible Tigers: Stress Management for Teens.

Most of what those resources advise and enable rolls up into the simple advice for people to control the controllables. Said Larson: “I have to remind myself, as cliché as it is, to take it one day at a time. I can’t make the decision for the governor. I’m not the one who’s going to decide whether school’s going to be open or not. I need to give up some of that control and some of that power and go with the flow. That’s hard for a lot of people, but step back, let things run their course, do what you can to keep yourself and other people around you healthy.”

From that stance, members of the Saint Thomas Academy community can best begin to address another source of anxiety that hit soon after the pandemic and the switch to distance learning: the public’s reaction to the murder of George Floyd and heightened awareness of social injustice. All these events lead to new forms of questioning, which entails new forms of learning amid uncertainty.

“There’s a big push for our staff to work on social justice issues that have come up since George Floyd’s murder,” said Larson, who serves on a diversity task force that the Academy convened this summer. “Even though we’re a predominantly white school, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t affected us. Right now, our committee is in a listening and planning phase where we’re trying to take in feedback from the community and alums. There’s been a pretty vocal group of recent alums who have looked to help us make some changes, and that’s been a great first step.”

The socio-political climate and the students’ expressed interests have raised consideration of senior service projects veering into social justice causes, Larson said. “We’re trying to lead from a different place, because leadership has to look different now. We’re trying to look at things through a different lens for service or leadership opportunities.”

Soon after Floyd’s murder, Larson and Ingalls crafted an email to students, which, Ingalls said, “talked about what happened and let them know our doors would be figuratively open albeit not at school. I got a few more requests than usual just to chat things out and try to make sense of it all even though it’s a nonsensical thing that didn’t need to happen. Most of the students, and students of color specifically, did a great job of stepping up and being leaders. Jamie Smith and Garrison Solliday did food drives that were rallying points for the community to come together and work for the common good.”

So, what’s next in this brave new world? According to Heraclitus, more change. But the observations of Ingalls and Larson are more modern and relevant.

“It’s important to recognize that students were thrust into distance learning as were teachers and counselors,” Ingalls said. “Given the circumstances, everyone did the best they could with the tools they had. If we go to distance learning again, those experiences will be smoother and easier.”

Foremost on Larson’s mind is the students’ social and emotional well-being, he said. “Just having the boys be able to socialize and interact on a daily basis makes a huge difference. In June, when guys came back to campus for summer workouts, just seeing how excited they were to be around their friends, starting to see a little bit of normalcy, has been impactful. Seeing students back in the building has been big for everyone. I fully realize some people’s hesitancy to get back in the building, especially if there are health concerns at home, but I think the benefit of social interaction is going to really help serve their mental health needs as much as the classroom stuff is going to meet their academic needs.”

Students returning to campus for the 2020-2021 school year is not a full return to normalcy. The pandemic and social justice issues continue, and so do the uncertainties they engender. But the reaction of the Saint Thomas Academy community over the last five months shows that Cadets, their families, faculty, and staff have what it takes to continue learning amid uncertainty and thrive within the context of constant change.