COVID-19: Boon or Bane for Students’ Brains?

This was written in collaboration with EJC Press as part of Issue 3 of Cross Island Impressions, an inter-JC Press collaboration. You can read Issue 3 here.

By Hong Wan Jing (22S06F; RI), Lara Tan (22A01B; RI), Harel Tan (21-12; EJC), He Jizhao (21-U5; EJC), and Jachin Khoo (21-U5; EJC)

We can all recall the pre-COVID days: the days without the inconvenience of wearing masks, the days where we can put our arm around our best friend’s shoulder, the days where spraying alcohol on tables wasn’t done without being frowned upon. Reminiscing on the times where we had the option to travel to Jozankei Hot Spring to taste natural springwater instead of resorting to the Sembawang Hot Spring, and beachside picnics with classes, I’m sure we can agree that those pre-COVID days were better.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a great disruption to everybody’s lives. With Singapore being one of the worst hit countries at the outset of the pandemic, the lives of many people grounded to a screeching halt, and students weren’t spared either. Students, given their young age, are affected to an even greater extent, especially with regards to their mental health.

What would be of overseas school trips with friends? Would the quality of teaching be affected by zoom lessons? What about SYF, ‘A’ Divs and competitions? These were some concerns students had about COVID-19 affecting their student life.

Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom! Just take wearing masks, for example. While masks are unbearably stuffy at times, one doesn’t have to be a scientist calculating the golden ratio to realise that they’ve actually made us look more attractive! (Perhaps even at risk of catfishing.) Similarly, this unprecedented situation has also brought about some unexpected benefits for students’ mental health.

As such, we conducted a survey amongst EJC and RI students and interviewed our respective school counsellors, Head of Years (HOYs) and peers to find out. 

Due to the Safe Management Measures (SMM) during COVID-19, many scheduled activities were unfortunately cancelled or failed to meet people’s expectations. The previously colorful school life transformed into Home-Based Learning (HBL) — from being surrounded by peers, students are now attending school from their rooms, alone.

Mandy Wong, a Y5 from RI echoed that she “was more disappointed than usual because a lot of activities were cancelled because of COVID-19”, but not to the extent of “long periods of depression”. While she views the pandemic as a disruption to many of her normal activities, life is “still alright” for her.

Sadly, in this COVID-stricken era, the only certainty undergirding life seems to be… uncertainty. A student from EJC confessed that she was “overwhelmed by so many unknowns and uncertainties in the future”. Many students have also admitted that they were tortured by anxiety and uneasiness during the lockdown period because they were not able to physically meet their teachers and friends to obtain the usual sense of assurance in terms of both academic progress and daily “news” in school.

Even though different students reported vastly different levels of change to their mental health, we still have to acknowledge that the pandemic has had a significant impact on our mental health and has changed our lifestyle dramatically. This could possibly be because of the abrupt changes instituted with regular frequency. Take for example, the quick change of arrangements from students attending school in alternating weeks, to full HBL last year. Another change that sent shockwaves around the nation, not just to students, but parents who had to ‘deal’ with their constant presence around the house, was the earlier month-long school holidays in May instead of the usual June.

How mental health has been impacted 

However, this change in lifestyle was not all bad. In fact, contrary to what we expected, a sizable proportion of students (43.6%) disagreed that their mental health had been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

43.6% of the respondents thought that their mental health was not too negatively impacted by the pandemic.

While the pandemic has undoubtedly caused the lives of some students to grind to a halt, many students have still made the best of their newfound free time. A student from RI told us that Circuit Breaker last year had actually given her a chance to “detach from the world”, “do reflection” and “reconnect with [her] old hobbies”.

Indeed, this sentiment is shared by many. Some of the common activities students have used to fill their time include catching up on old hobbies, de-stressing, trying out new self-care routines, and spending more time with family members. The pandemic has given many students respite from their busy school lives previously laden with extra-curricular activities, which were draining and tiring ventures for some.

Therefore, COVID-19 has significantly, as some students have put it, given them more “me time” and “breathing room from others”, and allowed students to “recalibrate”. Some even found that the relaxed and individualised pace of HBL gave them more freedom and ease to enjoy their subjects and immerse themselves in their work. 

Another (unsurprising) reason many students felt their mental health had improved was the increased amount of sleep they were able to get. During Circuit Breaker, many students even professed to waking up just minutes before their online lessons began to sneak in extra minutes of sleep they would not have been able to get on a normal school day.

Nevertheless, just as the pandemic has had many unexpected silver linings, it is undeniable that the New Normal looks bleak for student life outside the classroom. Many students are disappointed by the cancellation of many extracurricular events, which have traditionally functioned as a healthy respite from the humdrum of school and an outlet for students’ energies.

For many, CCA is a way for students to keep themselves “meaningfully occupied” by “engaging themselves with positive activities” as the counsellor from EJC puts it. However, the pandemic has resulted in some crucial CCA events being cancelled entirely. Notably, the National School Games, the highlight of any school athlete’s competitive experience, has been cancelled with the exception of selected sports. 

Shawn Yip, a Y5 softballer from RI, mentioned that he felt “devastated when the National Schools Sports Council gave the official mandate.” For him, it seemed as if “all the long hours of blood, sweat and tears that [they had] put into improving their [our] craft were ultimately to no avail.” 

Despite this, he acknowledges that his CCA has still managed to carry on without competitive experience, setting goals for the athletes to improve their standards and ensuring that they do not stagnate. However, it is evident that a loss of competition or performance experience has created a vast void in students’ non-academic lives, and might have left students in a rut without tangible goals to work towards, hence destabilizing their mental health and sense of motivation. 

The pandemic has also engendered feelings of uncertainty in these unstable, unprecedented times. Some students feel uncertain and unconfident about the future, especially those who are about to graduate from JC soon and are seeking career opportunities like internships before striving towards university, which have been largely made inaccessible due to the pandemic. Some students are also struggling with online learning, as they find it less effective than in-person teaching and worry that it will have ramifications on their preparation for exams. 

For numerous students, their interpersonal relationships with others have also taken a hit due to the pandemic. Especially during Circuit Breaker last year, some students felt that they had drifted away from their close friends after not being able to see them as often. For Y5 students who had just been with their new classmates for a mere two months before Circuit Breaker disrupted the process of them getting to know each other better, proper class bonding was almost brought to a halt. Family relations were not spared either; some agonized that their family relations have deteriorated due to constant interaction with their family members, leading to more frequent quarrels. This may have a negative feedback loop effect, as “keeping a network of social support with adults… such as parents” was a way recommended by EJC’s school counsellor to manage mental health.

Why mental health has been impacted

However, the pandemic was not all doom and gloom as there were some people who came out of the pandemic feeling better than before. Over 80 students from RI and EJC were surveyed on the effects of the pandemic on their mental health and more than 54.6% of the respondents felt that the pandemic has had positive impacts on their lives.

Many have expressed that the pandemic has given them the opportunity to escape from their suffocating and stressful work schedules. For some, the pandemic came as a much deserved “break” for one could escape from the mounting number of school commitments. An EJC student, who declined to be named, shared, “Home-based learning was enjoyable because there were fewer (non-academic) commitments.” Evidently, HBL has led to greater overall satisfaction among some students as it enabled them to have a better learning environment. 

On the other hand, the pandemic has had deleterious impacts on the academic performance of students. Lectures have definitely become quite different from what we would normally expect: while some subjects have resumed live lectures at the start of this year, some still remain asynchronous. 

The switch to online lectures had invited mixed reactions. For some, the transition to online lectures has been a boon for the self-disciplined and independent learners who have no issues watching online lectures on their own. However, those who have the tendency to procrastinate may find themselves in a sticky situation where the number of unwatched lectures start to snowball. Eventually, they are inundated by the staggering amount of lectures to cover at the end of the week. 

Many students lament the implementation of recorded lectures, finding them less effective than live lectures. In RI, lectures for Y5s are now entirely pre-recorded, and the Y6s attend both online and in-person lectures depending on the subject. Similarly, in EJC, the lectures are also entirely pre-recorded.

An EJC student shared, “the lack of live lectures for subjects like Economics and Chemistry has made it more difficult to clarify one’s doubts. Recorded lectures are often artificial and lack the human touch, making it mundane.” 

For many, stringent SMMs have made school life more mundane. Holding large, cohort-wide events has become next to impossible, and events such as Orientation have to be scaled down. A student from EJC remarked that “there is nothing to look forward to in school other than just studying” since events have been “scaled down to a level that is less fun and hinders bonding between students.” Events like Spartan Race (EJC) and Orientation have been a staple for past batches of students and are often regarded as the ‘highs’ of one’s JC life, making the hectic and unforgiving JC life more bearable.

The RI canteen after COVID-19 started.

In the RI (Y5-6) canteen, where there used to be long joined tables, what remains are separated individual benches with plastic partitions in the name of social distancing. Where classes used to have lunch and recesses at the same table, has now become a place where one can spot classes broken up into their friend groups (groups not exceeding 5, of course). Where aisles between tables were filled with large groups singing happy birthday to one special student, now have teachers on roster patrolling them.

What our schools have been doing

Beyond the undeniable modifications to everyday school life, counsellors, peer helpers and teachers alike found themselves galvanized into action and on the lookout for vulnerable students, such as those who had already been facing family issues beforehand and were then at risk due to the lockdown situation. 

In RI, during the Circuit Breaker period, teachers actively paid attention to students’ wellbeing during lessons—from simple things like asking everyone to turn on their cameras to conduct “visual checks”, to acting as consistently accessible points of contact for struggling students, teachers played an instrumental role in looking out for students during Circuit Breaker. Additionally, counselling services were made accessible through the Team Raffles Instagram account. The campus was kept open for students who were at risk to turbulent family environments, and Peer Helpers even made themselves available on platforms like Houseparty, encouraging students to meet up with one another online and bond together.

While some of these initiatives had limited effectiveness, RI counsellors, Ms Woo and Ms Kah Hwee, and Head-of-Year Mrs Tan unanimously professed that their approach to tackling the problem of student mental health was simple: to “cast the net as wide as possible” by providing a variety of avenues for students to reach out to peers and trusted adults alike. 

In EJC, school leaders and student leaders also showed their true care and passion for students. They worked tirelessly and came up with creative ideas, creating remote adaptations of our usual school events through technology and giving out simple welfare packs to lift everyone’s spirits during this unprecedented time. 

Conclusion

With the situation still evolving (HBL Round 2, anyone?), COVID-19 has definitely had mixed impacts on students’ mental health across both our schools, for better or for worse. Due to the almost indefinite pause on many shared extra-curricular and school activities, students found themselves with an invaluable chance to recover from the usual dizzying pace of school life, and yet others suffered in absence of these exciting and vibrant ventures and found themselves increasingly aimless, consigned to a starkly different, lonelier and almost dystopian version of school life.

As the saying goes, “no man’s an island”, and this pandemic made us realise, more than anything, how vulnerable we are alone and how much we depend on one another for support. 

But at the end of the day, the question that we so valiantly set out to answer still remains: has Covid been a boon or a bane for everyone’s brains? 

Probably a mixture of both. 

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