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Student Mental Health Tops Concerns Among Western Mass. High School Teachers

Shane Dillon attends his school in Springfield from home. (Courtesy Christine Dillon)
Shane Dillon attends his school in Springfield from home. (Courtesy Christine Dillon)

At the end of the first week of this log-in-from-your-bedroom school year, Shane Dillon said it isn’t bad — yet.

Dillon, a junior at The Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts, said that at first, he was skeptical about remote learning.

“Because I love being around my friends,” he said. “We really had a lot planned for in school, and it was gonna probably be one of the best years. And then that all got turned around.”

Dillon’s online school day runs from 7:35 a.m. to 2:05 p.m., with an extra-long lunch period, and generous breaks between classes. He alternates synchronous learning — that’s when his classmates and teacher are all online together — with coursework he does on his own time.

“I don't want to say I'm enjoying it,” he said. “But I am and I'm not. I like the breaks. I like the freedom and independence.”

High school students face a particular set of hurdles during this time of massive disruption to education.

Falynne Correia, head of guidance at The Renaissance School, said she has students dealing with homelessness and the loss of family members to COVID-19. Some of her students are at risk of falling behind academically. That said, her biggest concern is the interruption to teenagers’ social lives.

“I don't want them to lose how to interact with each other,” Correia said. “It's fine and dandy to be able to get on Zoom and use our phones and FaceTime, but you can't replace human-to-human interaction.”

Renaissance is a public magnet school that follows an education model called Expeditionary Learning. A core component of that model is “crew”: a dozen or so students and one teacher who meet daily and stick together through all four years of high school.

Dillon said his crew helped him stay socially connected all summer.

“My crew is fortunate enough to have a crew teacher who spends a good chunk of her personal time making sure we have everything we need,” he said.

That teacher is Sarah Banning, a 10th grade English instructor. She said she’s psyched to finally be back with her students, even if class is currently located on her laptop.

Sarah Banning is an English teacher at The Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Ben James/ NEPM)
Sarah Banning is an English teacher at The Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Ben James/ NEPM)

Banning’s focus for the opening week of school was simply connecting with her students.

“They have just been lovely and funny and kind, and just like, super — just wonderful,” she said. “I have not touched content. I have not done anything that one would potentially, from an MCAS perspective, describe as being particularly important.”

Banning said she’s pleased with the 99% attendance rate the school achieved late in the first week. Even more significant, she said, is her students’ enthusiasm to be back.

“I've had more kids express excitement about school this year than I have ever heard previously,” she said. “And I think that's interesting. And I want it to not go away.”

Banning attributed some of that excitement to the fact that an unstructured summer is finally coming to an end. But she also pointed to the many petty power struggles that make in-person school unbearable for some kids. She mentioned conflicts about students wearing hoodies or not putting away their phones.

“There's a lot of little things that escalate into really serious conflicts with kids, and it's definitely the adults’ fault,” she said.

Those sorts of conflicts aren’t in play right now, Banning said, and her students can feel the difference.

Still, there are some aspects of remote school she wishes she could change.

“The thing that we're still really missing is that unstructured interaction time, and I don't know how to create that for kids,” Banning said.

Quick greetings across the hallway. Silliness in the cafeteria. Your crush in fourth period. These social exchanges are the reason many kids go to high school in the first place, and Banning isn’t the only educator mourning their loss.

Daniel Thiombiano teaches ninth grade earth sciences at Holyoke High School. He said one of his favorite times of day is sitting with students in the lunchroom.

“You don't even have to utter a word, but just sitting down with your students builds a certain connection,” Thiombiano said. “[Then], when the period starts, you both become different characters.”

Thiombiano’s word choice is telling. When he said “different characters,” he was pointing out the artistry entailed in teaching teenagers. There’s a lot of nuance required to build positive teacher-student relationships at the high school level.

Unfortunately, nuance is often lacking on digital learning platforms.

One morning toward the end of Holyoke’s first week of school, Thiombiano used the screen-share function on Zoom to introduce his incoming freshmen to Google Docs and other applications they’ll need during this all-digital school year. He took attendance at the beginning and end of the session.

Between those times, the students were mostly silent, leaving Thiombiano to do most of the talking.

Thiombiano said engagement from students is critical to remote learning, but making these new high schoolers — especially the English language learners — comfortable enough to take risks is no small feat.

Daniel Thiombiano is a ninth-grade earth sciences at Holyoke High School. (Ben James/NEPM)
Daniel Thiombiano is a ninth-grade earth sciences at Holyoke High School. (Ben James/NEPM)

One particular challenge was how many squares in his Zoom classroom — each representing an individual student — were blank. Thiombiano said even if most of his students are present in class, he can expect up to 20% of them to have their cameras off.

“It's been really challenging not being able to see a student while you teach,” he said. “You know, at some point, it almost feels like you're speaking to the open air, right?”

Every school operating remotely faces a decision on whether to require students to be visible on camera during class. The Springfield Renaissance School has a cameras-on policy for all students.

Banning said she understands the intent of the rule, but she has reservations.

“Personally, I had a lot of confidence issues as a kid, and I could find it terrifying and stomach-churning to be on camera all day,” she said.

Turning your camera on or off. Snapchatting a selfie during a breakout session. Stepping away from a Zoom session to help your younger brother log onto his class. This is high school in September 2020.

The norms are being reinvented in real time, and teachers are confronting the possibility they may not be able to connect with some of their students at all.

“It's not enough for the students to be present in class,” Thiombiano said. “Are they going to be learning something? Or are they going to be sitting in front of their computers and their attention is somewhere else?”

Teacher burnout is a real phenomenon under the best of circumstances. Strong unions have helped many Massachusetts teachers secure the right to teach remotely during the pandemic.

But Correia said that even within the relative safety of distance learning, the risks to teachers’ mental health shouldn’t be ignored.

“If I'm focusing on students, I have to also think about teachers,” she said. “Because if our teachers are miserable, then our kids are gonna be miserable. You can't pour from an empty cup.”

Over the coming weeks, teachers across the state will take on the next phase of COVID-era instruction: teaching their actual subject matter.

Sitting at the desk in his bedroom, Dillon seems as ready as any student could be.

“We don't know what's gonna happen a month from now, or a week from now,” he said. “So I think a lot of us are just going with the flow.”

This story originally appeared on New England Public Media.

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