Another pandemic school year is coming to an end. What have we learned so far?

For more than two years now, schools have been tested for COVID-19 in unprecedented ways.

The pandemic has exposed a host of inequalities between haves and have-nots: Thousands of students have stopped attending school, with some unable to connect to virtual classrooms and others disengaging. Mask-wearing and other health and safety practices have become politicized and divisive.

And since schools fully reopened last fall, staff have faced new and complex issues, from student anxiety and burnout to children returning without the skills they need to succeed. in their classes.

It’s the last week of school for many districts in Washington. To mark the end of this school year, Seattle Times education reporters reached out to some of those interviewed about school challenges at the start of the pandemic. These students, educators and mental health experts reflect on what they have learned and how the issues they have seen laid bare by the crisis are being addressed.

Loneliness, depression in young people

Amy Mezulis has seen firsthand the mental health issues young people face and how they have changed during the pandemic. She’s a clinical psychologist and professor at Seattle Pacific University, and in 2020 she shared the results of an ongoing survey showing an increase in loneliness and depression among teens and young adults.

Since then, she has learned even more.

She has observed more young people showing symptoms related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and eating disorders during the pandemic. “These are all mental health symptoms and issues that represent our attempts to control uncontrollable circumstances,” she said.

Mezulis added that this is particularly concerning because the toll of stressful events lasts much longer than the situations themselves: “You don’t take on every new challenge,” she said, “you take on the new challenge with the cumulative effects of previous challenges. .”

Some students have been particularly affected because they have lost safe spaces at school or in their communities that have mitigated trauma at home. Many have also missed opportunities for day-to-day social development.

“What we’re seeing now, as kids kind of go back to ‘normal life,’ is a developmental gap of one to two years,” she said. “We see children with really underdeveloped social skills, an ability to navigate romantic and sexual relationships, a lot more challenges in developing gender and sexual identity in a healthy way.”

On the positive side, the pandemic has brought new tools and approaches to mental health support, such as telehealth appointments with psychologists and free phone apps or tools to promote mental wellness.

But helping young people recover won’t be quick or easy, Mezulis said. “It’s going to take a long time to unravel.”

Mental health needs

Students spoke louder and often about the need for comprehensive and accessible mental health support systems. One such student is high school student Tsion Debebe, who worked with King County to conduct a student-led survey of mental health needs in 2020.

“Before I started all this work, I didn’t understand the point of mental health,” she said. “I come from an East African community…I don’t even think there’s a word for ‘mental health’ in our language.”

Since then, Debebe has worked alongside her parents to provide mental health education to people of color, specifically focused on improving access to personal care and mental health resources. She said one of the biggest takeaways was the importance of including young people’s voices in the development of mental health supports in schools and other institutions.

Still, she said there was still a lot of work to do. “Many young people are struggling in silence and not getting the help they need, even if it is available to them,” she said.

A move abroad postponed

Before the pandemic hit, Ballard High student Lily Tage planned to take a cross-country road trip and then move to Berlin. All of this has been put on hold by COVID-19.

At the end of her senior year in 2020, Tage was spending 10 to 12 hours a day sewing — making masks and donating them or donating a percentage of the proceeds from their sale.

Adulthood is very different from what she had expected. The pandemic is not over; most of his friends went to college. She has a new boyfriend and is still trying to figure out what kind of job suits her.

“It was very difficult,” said the 20-year-old. “The thing I struggle the most with is making and keeping friends, especially as someone who isn’t going to college.”

She started working for a small company that sells bicycle panniers, doing quality control. She later changed jobs and now serves legal documents, files court documents and provides customer service for another company.

“I really love people and now I can help people and do something different every day,” Tage said.

Tribal leaders create learning center

In the fall of 2020, when classes were still mostly conducted remotely, leaders of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe established an out-of-school school for its students attending the Port Angeles School District. With financial support from the district, the tribe transformed a former daycare center into a learning center. Every day, the tutors monitored the children as they attended lessons on their devices and helped them stay on track. This allowed the children to come out of the isolation of quarantine life, who could play outside, learn the Klallam language and have lunch together.

Schools were back in person full-time this year, but the learning center did not close; it now hosts after-school cultural programs and tutoring. The district still provides food and transportation for these activities. Many older students who came to the learning center during the school closures have graduated, said tribe president Frances Charles.

“The biggest lesson really is – listen to the kids. Talk to the kids, see what their needs are. How has all of this affected them? Mentally, physically, spiritually? Charles said.

There are still ambitions, as at the start of 2021, to create a formalized classroom environment – ​​something for the young people of the tribe who find it difficult to engage in public schools. These plans are in preparation.

“We’ve watched, watched, and we know some of the things we need to do in the future,” she said. “We still have a lot to learn from children.”

How one district handled the pandemic

Along the Washington-Idaho border in the Lewis-Clark Valley, the Clarkston School District navigated a unique proximity to radically different COVID-19 policies than Washington as it reopened for in-person school at fall 2020. Clarkston Superintendent Thaynan Knowlton said about 20% of district personnel live across state lines, and sometimes it feels like Idaho isn’t going through a pandemic at all.

“It was a stressful time,” he said.

Divisive political rhetoric has rocked the Valley, fueled by disagreements over rules for masking, testing and isolation, though the community has always been tight-knit. Some people expected Knowlton and others to remove state-imposed COVID-19 mitigation measures to more closely align with their Idaho neighbors. But the District of Washington complied with Washington’s rules.

Since mask requirements were lifted in March, Knowlton said, the pressure has also increased. Working with other school and community leaders in the area and across the river was key to keeping the school district on track, he said.

“It’s a lot of pressure to put on a handful of individuals when the politics were so extreme and difficult,” he said. And yet, the district pulled through: “Everyone was really committed to making the school work as best we could.”

Knowlton said it also helped keep tabs on the future, including planning for a new high school. “You have to, as a leader, realize that the sun is behind the clouds,” he said. “There has to be this belief in my mind that things are going to get better.”

Hard times for school nurses

Liz Pray has just completed her ninth year as a school nurse – the toughest year ever, she said. “I’ll be honest, I’m glad this school year is almost over. The past few years have been difficult not only for school nurses, but even more so for our students. »

Pray was on the front lines in April 2020 when a school staff member tested positive for COVID-19 in the Moses Lake School District, about 180 miles east of Seattle. She helped the local health department contact the dozens of people the staff member had contacted.

Fast forward to this year, when she managed day-to-day school operations during the first full-time in-person school year since the pandemic began.

“This year has been busier than others, and there are so many things that happened with students while they were home during this time of quarantine and remote learning,” Pray said. “They didn’t have the normal support from school nurses – our children with chronic illnesses, asthma and food allergies.”

What has changed the most for Pray, she said, is the focus on mental health.

Move the needle for broadband access

John Weisenfeld, a science and technology teacher at Pasco High School, lived in one of 10 houses on a North 25th Place cul-de-sac that, at the start of the pandemic, lacked broadband infrastructure. He was told it would cost around $21,000 for the street plus the price of internet subscriptions, at each homeowner’s expense, to fix the problem.

In August 2020, “We were aware that school is fully online and starts in four weeks. We didn’t know how we were going to do it,” he said.

So Weisenfeld called internet service provider Spectrum every day for a few weeks and urged Pasco executives to do something about it. Just before the start of the school year, Spectrum installed new boxes and the dozens of meters of cable needed to connect families online at the company’s expense.

“Spectrum did the right thing,” said the science teacher. “But not all neighborhoods are lucky enough to have someone to work [on the issue]. Do people turn around and write that check then? »

Weisenfeld solved his neighborhood’s problem through tenacity and persistence, but across the state there’s a dawning recognition that access is vital for everyone.

In January, the Washington State Broadband Office received $145 million in infrastructure grants to provide high-speed Internet to 14 communities. The state aims to provide broadband to all residents by 2028.

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