With COVID came a new, intentional focus on online classes. It was mandated in the spring as positive cases escalated and school officials were sent scrambling to keep students and teachers this safe. And some students across the Midwest headed back to school this fall whether they’d been cleared by lowered COVID cases or simply pushed forward by other pressures as stay-at-home measures were relaxed. But in many communities, the virtual classroom has become the new normal and it’s not just academics that are impacted.
This reporting piece is part of a collaboration between WNIN and the University of Evansville called “COVID Between the Coasts”. The student reporting on this segment is Avery Pereboom. Her work took her from Wisconsin to Kentucky.
As of April, three fourths of school social workers said that most of their students require serious mental health support due to trauma related to COVID-19 and its fallout. This could include anything from fear of sickness, to parent job loss, or feelings of isolation.
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, where COVID cases reach records, students returned to virtual school this fall. Karen Brown-Schaible is a social worker at Green Bay West High School, which serves students from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. Karen knows of students working longer hours to help support their families through financial turmoil. Others have had to step up as caregivers for younger siblings also out of school. In turn, the Green Bay Area Public School District has tried to provide for its most disadvantaged students.
"They can still come and pick up meals. They can get breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all together. They can come and pick it up at any time between 11 and 3 from any school. And they can come and pick it up for their siblings, their neighbors, whatever, it doesn’t matter. And so we’ve also started putting out hygiene supplies that we buy with the special budget that we have so that kids have soap, shampoo, laundry detergent if we can throw that in--that kind of stuff. Because it’s hard to know who needs what, but those kinds of items are the kind of things Food Share doesn’t buy: laundry detergent and toilet paper.
Back in the spring there was Operation Community Cares. That was a project that was started by a community agency and just a concerned citizen who was like, ‘you know what, what can we do here?’, so several different agencies combined up resources to have an agency that could distribute food to people. So it was quite interesting to watch how fast it came together, and how helpful it was to have different agencies all kind of funneling that stuff together instead of every agency trying to do their own thing. It was very coordinated, and it was very well-done, and that was one of the things that I worked at on Saturdays," Brown-Schaible said.
The difficulty of online school is how much more it relies on resources at home. Even for students who don’t need to worry about food on the table, there’s the challenge of technology, and even simply having the right atmosphere to work.
"You know, if you live in a house, and there’s four kids there and a mom and dad and grandma or whoever, and now you’re all there, and you’re all using the same wifi--it kicks some of you out, or you don’t really have enough wifi--I mean, all of that, that’s a resource issue, right? Wifi, and how much personal space you have to get done what you need to do and have a quiet place to do it."
But the Green Bay district tried to meet students where they were, providing wireless broadband, called kajeets, for students who needed it. The switch to virtual education was a process of learning by trial and error, for all involved. In the spring, the kajeets were often pushed to capacity in households with multiple students, so they were adjusted in proportion to users for the fall.
Back-to-back virtual semesters gave the Green Bay district a unique opportunity to get this one right, so they made a point of listening to student feedback. Overwhelmingly, students have felt disengaged from schoolwork, their instructors, and their peers. It’s tempting to stop logging in altogether.
"We also added this HomeBase class which is like an advisory period. It’s after second period, it’s almost half an hour long. So that was really intended to address the socio-emotional stuff, and also just have a little cohort of your people--say 12 to 15--that you know that know about you, that care about you, that you notice. That’s where you get your information. Just that kind of thing, if Bobby doesn’t show up to his advisory for three days then his teacher would know, ‘huh, something must be going on with Bobby,’ and then reaches out to say, ‘so how are you doing?’ and kinda watches their grades and tries to help them with coping strategies."
Perhaps an unexpected positive from COVID does exist, though. Potential for greater emphasis on students’ emotional wellbeing. After the spring semester, the Support Staff at West High trained teachers on responses to stress and trauma so they could better help their students. Much of the material focused on a concept called “restorative practices”, which is the emerging science of relationship and community building.
"We had talked about doing this--we actually had a committee form--a year or two before this, so we were thinking about this. But this, though--I think it’s a district-wide initiative--that came out as a result of the pandemic, trying to make sure that we were meeting with kids and trying to monitor them as closely as we can in terms of their socio-emotional learning as well. I think we might tweak it some, but my guess is that it would maybe be here to stay."
Students might also be looking at college differently for the foreseeable future. According to the College Savings Foundation, 39% of 2020 graduates said that the economic uncertainty of COVID would affect their decisions about college.
"Just on Friday, I was talking to a student, and I said, ‘oh, you’re so-and-so’s sibling! What’s she up to now?’ because she graduated last year, and she said she’s working, she decided to put off going to NWTC (that’s the community college around here), she decided to put that off because of the whole pandemic and everything."
The anxiety doesn’t stop at high schoolers. Phillip Mammoser is a student at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky, where he’s been a bartender at Tap 216 for almost two years. Although Tap 216 only shut down for a few weeks in the spring, COVID is still hurting Phillip’s wallet.
"I’m getting forty hours a week, but I double Friday, Saturday, Sundays. In the restaurant business, there’s a mandated capacity, and you’re not getting as many customers as you used to. You’re not getting as many tables in there, and as a bartender, you can’t have people sit at the bar in Kentucky. So that has ultimately affected the number of people, and pretty much your average wage you tend to make in tips," Mammoser said.
Phillip is graduating this fall. Not only does he have to worry about paying his expenses with these reduced savings--he’s also staring down job applications in an industry ravaged by COVID.
"I want to be a liquor rep, so I want to sell alcohol to bars, liquor stores, grocery stores. I want to go down that route because of my experience as a bartender managing a liquor store, and I’ve been in the food industry for nine years. Right now, it is nearly impossible to get a job in alcohol sales due to the fact that breweries and distilleries are making less amount of alcohol because bars are not open at a hundred percent capacity, people are choosing not to go out and eat and dine as much as they were prior to COVID, and alcohol sales are just down. So they’re letting people go and they’re not willing to hire anyone because they’re not making as much money anymore."
Fifty-five per cent of all students polled by the College Savings Foundation say that COVID will impact the rest of their lives. Young people might have the immune advantage, but the pandemic still looms large for those with a whole life ahead.