Local students say remote learning is taking a toll on mental health

With bedrooms replacing classrooms for nearly one year, local students say they are struggling in so many ways.

"It's been a challenge for everyone, but in different ways," said Alyssa Holland from Lockport Township.

"I think that being isolated and ostracized, alone in your room has made people feel, well, alone because that’s what you are," said Paige Gagerman from Deerfield High School.

That struggle became a warning when Dylan Buckner took his own life last month. 

The Glenbrook North star quarterback had friends, good grades, a promising future, but his father believes remote learning made his depression worse.

"There's no doubt in our minds the stress he was feeling as a result of school closures, not being with his friends, not being able to play football, absolutely contributed to his death," said Chris Buckner, Dylan’s father.

"I would say at least twice a week, I’m finding myself in a situation where I need to screen students to see if there are safety issues for them," said Grace Robinson, a Social Worker at Lockport Township.

Robinson says suicide rates for teens and calls to hotlines have skyrocketed in the last year.

At her school in the southwest suburbs, Robinson has seen a tremendous amount of depression and anxiety among students.

"I think the degree of isolation and how prolonged it’s been has been is taking a real toll on kids. Developmentally at this stage, they’re social creatures. They need that," said Robinson.

Robinson says this affects learning too.

At Lockport Township High School, they're using a hybrid model.

Students say it's hard to stay motivated and organized on the days they're not in the school building.

"Academically, it’s been the hardest because I learn much better in class than I do over a computer screen," said Diego Islas, a sophomore at Lockport Township.

Two days a week, they are in classrooms and senior Marisa Brown says those days are key.

"It helps you keep your motivation up a little bit. Like reminds you, that this is still actual school," said Brown.

While at Deerfield High School, some students started a Facebook campaign, pressuring the board to open District 113, which has been fully remote since March.

"Businesses, restaurants, they’re all starting to open, and I think it’s ridiculous that we’re not back in school," said Ariella Bernstein, a junior at Deerfield High School.

Bernstein and Gagerman say students' grades have slipped, but their main motivation to push for re-opening is the mental toll.

"I think that anxiety, depression, all of those sort of negative feelings and emotions have just been completely exacerbated by this entire process," said Gagerman.

Beyond the isolation of being stuck in their room all day, there are also lots of activities that teens have been missing, such as sports, clubs, dances and parties.

Social workers say kids are experiencing loss.

"It’s like a loss we would have experienced with a loved one; that compound kind of grieving is there for everyone collectively," said Robinson. 

Robinson says being in school, even part-time for hybrid learning, keeps teenagers connected to some sense of normal.

 "It’s the fact of having something to wake up for in the morning. So you wake up with a purpose," said Gagerman.

Bernstein and Gagerman will soon get the choice of going back to in-person learning as District 113 just voted to start hybrid learning Feb. 23.

For the first time in 11 months, they'll return to classrooms, but not to the same high school experience they remember last year.

 If you or a loved one is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Life Line at 1-800- 273--8255 or text "HOME" to 741-741.