Another pandemic school year ends. What have we learned so far?

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

The pandemic has revealed a multitude of inequities between the haves and the have-nots: thousands of students stopped attending school, some unable to connect with virtual classrooms and others becoming disengaged. Mask-wearing and other health and safety practices became politicized and divisive.

And since schools fully reopened their doors last fall, staff have been confronting new and complex issues, from student anxiety and exhaustion to kids who return without the skills they need to succeed in their grade levels.

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

Loneliness, depression among young people

Amy Mezulis has seen firsthand the mental health challenges young people are facing and how they have been changing during the pandemic. She’s a clinical psychologist and professor at Seattle Pacific University, and in 2020 she shared results from an ongoing survey highlighting an increase in loneliness and depression among teens and young adults.

Since then, she’s learned even more.

She’s observed more youth with symptoms related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and disordered eating during the pandemic. “Those are all symptoms and mental health problems that represent our attempts to put control in uncontrollable circumstances,” she said.

Mezulis added that it’s especially concerning because the toll that stressful events take lasts much longer than the situations themselves: “You don’t hit each new challenge fresh,” she said, “you hit the new challenge with the accumulated effects of the challenges before .”

Some students were particularly hard as they lost safe spaces at school or in their communities that buffered home-based trauma. Many also missed out on day-to-day social development opportunities.

“What we’re seeing now, as kids are sort of returning to ‘normal life,’ is a one- to two-year gap in development,” she said. “We’re seeing kids with really underdeveloped social skills, the ability to navigate romantic and sexual relationships, a lot more challenges with developing gender and sexual identity in a healthy way.”

On the upside, the pandemic has brought new tools and approaches to mental health support, like 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 lot of time to undo.”

Mental health needs

Students have been speaking more loudly and often about the need for comprehensive and accessible mental health support systems. One of those students is high school senior Tsion Debebe, who worked with King County to conduct a student-led survey on mental health needs in 2020.

“Before I started all of 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 among people of color, specifically focused on enhancing access to self-care and mental health resources. She said one of the biggest takeaways has been the importance of including youth voices in the development of mental health supports at schools and other institutions.

Still, she said there’s much work left to do. “A lot of youth are struggling in silence and not getting the help that they need even if it’s available to them,” she said.

An overseas move deferred

Before the pandemic hit, Ballard High student Lily Tage was planning to take a cross-country road trip, then move to Berlin. All of that was 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 either donating them or giving away a percentage of the proceeds from selling them.

Adulthood is very different from what she had anticipated. The pandemic isn’t over; Most of her friends have gone off to college. She has a new boyfriend and is still trying to figure out what kind of job works for her.

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

She started out working for a small company that sells bike bags, doing quality control. Later she switched jobs, and now serves legal papers, files court documents and provides customer service for a different company.

“I really enjoy people and now get to help people and do something different every day,” Tage said.

Tribal leaders create a learning hub

In the fall of 2020, while classes were mostly still being taught remotely, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe leaders created a school away from school for its students attending the Port Angeles School District. With financial support from the district, the tribe converted an old day care center into a learning hub. Every day, tutors watched over kids as they attended lessons on their devices and helped them stay on track. It provided a break from the isolation of quarantine life for the kids, who got to play outside, learn the Klallam language and eat lunch together.

Schools were back in person full-time this year, but the learning center hasn’t closed; it now hosts after-school cultural programming and academic support. The district still provides food and transportation for those activities. Many of the older students who came to the learning center during school closures have gone on to graduate, said Frances Charles, the tribe’s chairperson.

“The biggest lesson is really — listen to the kids. Talk to the kids, see what their needs are. How did this all impact them? Mentally, physically, spiritually?” Charles said.

There are still ambitions, as there were in early 2021, to create a formalized classroom environment — something for the tribe’s youth who have trouble engaging in public schools. Those plans are in the works.

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

How one district managed the pandemic

Along the Washington-Idaho border in the Lewis-Clark Valley, the Clarkston School District navigated a unique proximity to COVID-19 policies drastically different from those in Washington when it reopened for in-person school in the fall of 2020. Clarkston superintendent Thaynan Knowlton said about 20% of the district’s staff live across state lines, and at times it was like Idaho wasn’t going through a pandemic at all.

“It was a stressful time,” he said.

Divisive political rhetoric rocked the valley, fueled by disagreements over masking, testing and isolation rules, even though the community has been historically close-knit. Some people expected Knowlton and others to do away with state-mandated COVID-19 mitigation measures to align more closely with their Idaho neighbors. But the Washington district hewed to Washington rules.

Since mask requirements lifted in March, Knowlton said, so has the pressure. Collaboration with other school and community leaders from the region and the other side of the river were key to keeping the school district on course, he said.

“That’s a lot of pressure to put on just a handful of individuals when the politics of it were so extreme and difficult,” he said. And yet the district muddled through: “Everybody was really committed to making school work in the best way we could.”

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

Difficult time for school nurses

Liz Pray has just finished her ninth year as a school nurse — the most difficult year ever, she said. “I’m going to be honest, I’m glad this school year is almost done. The last few years have been hard not only for school nurses but more so for our students.”

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

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

“This year was busier than others, and there are so many things that happened with students when they were at home for that period of quarantine and remote learning,” Pray said. “They didn’t have normal support of school nurses — our kids with chronic health conditions and asthma and food allergies.”

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

Moving the needle for broadband access

Pasco High School science and technology teacher John Weisenfeld 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 some $21,000 for the street plus the price of internet subscriptions, at each homeowner’s expense, to resolve the issue.

In August 2020, “We were staring down the barrel of the fact that the 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 provider Spectrum every day for a couple of weeks and urged Pasco leaders to do something. Just before the start of school, Spectrum installed new boxes and the dozens of feet of cable needed to connect families online on the company’s dime.

“Spectrum did do the right thing,” the science teacher said. “But not every neighborhood is lucky enough to have someone to work [on the issue]. Do people just roll over 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 awarded $145 million in infrastructure grants to deliver high-speed internet to 14 communities. The state has a goal to deliver broadband to all residents by 2028.

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