PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Students and educators across Rhode Island are currently in their third school year since the pandemic started and on Wednesday, a panel of experts discussed how it has affected the state’s youth.

The virtual discussion called “Returning to Our Schools” was led by the Academic Dean of the Brown School of Public Health Dr. Megan Ranney and featured other doctors, educators, parents and students.

All agreed that times are tough in the classroom right now, and it’s causing a mental health crisis among students and staff.

Deborah Obisanya, a student in the Providence Public School District, said she remembers the moment her school switched to distance learning in 2020. Since then, she said she’s noticed a difference in her peers.

“For some of my friends, I know their mental health really declined sharply and it reflects on their grades too, so there are a lot of people who did not do well the first quarantine distance learning, and then it just kept getting worse,” Obisanya said.

But it’s not just affecting students. Educators are also struggling, as Ranney pointed out.

“We know from national surveys, including one done by the CDC Foundation last May, that almost a third of teachers reported symptoms with clinical depression, almost 40% reported symptoms consistent with generalized anxiety, and half of teachers said that they were thinking of leaving the profession more now than they were before the pandemic,” Ranney said.

Ranney pointed to Providence Public Schools, where the district reported it lost 10% of teachers last summer alone, and more than 350 in the last two years.

“These are losses of not just people, not just bodies in a system, but folks that are part of a community and who have held roles and have institution knowledge, and are deeply needed to take care of the kids,” she added.

Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who was also on the panel, said the state changed rules to expedite increasing schools’ staffing levels.

“I’m worried about all of us. I’m worried about finding nurses in our schools. It’s just across the board and this has taken its toll on everyone,” Infante-Green said.

Infante-Green said RIDE has invested in a course on social and emotional development that’s accessible to both educators and parents. She said RIDE is also using incentives to hire more teachers, and is investing in more professional development.

One teacher on the panel said every day is a balancing act, and she never knows how many students will be in her class on any given day.

“I might have a student in the room who I haven’t seen in three weeks, and I don’t really know the context with that,” said Toni Cox, a high school teacher in Providence.

Some ideas for improvement were providing teachers and parents with better mental health resources and support for themselves and students, and to hire more staff to take the pressure off of employees with full plates.

Infante-Green said she’s remaining hopeful and is holding firm on her word to keep students learning in person right now.

“This is where they get their food, this is where they get their support system, this is where they get to see a nurse. So, I think we take for granted how important schools are,” she said.

While there are no easy answers, the group ended the session in agreement that working together is a start.

“I think centering student voice, community voice, and parent voice can go a long way to making sure that every individual community’s needs get met,” said parent Melissa Hughes.

Click here for more information on mental health resources provided by RIDE.