Social worker Vinita Lee helps third graders in Castro Valley Unified's summer school program understand how to handle their emotions by creating a 'toolbox' of responses. This year, CVUSD tripled summer school attendance with the goal of providing more students with the tools they may need to return to in-person learning. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)
Jocelyn Barajas is bent over a soup of crushed strawberries, holding a pipette.
She’s a rising high school freshman in Castro Valley taking summer classes this year. Her science class has started a new experiment, with their goal being to extract DNA from strawberries.
At first, Jocelyn was not thrilled with the idea of summer school. Going through her last year of middle school during a pandemic made her lose some faith in education. All her classes were online and she says teachers never gave kids a chance to share what they were going through.
“People probably went through depression and we didn’t know about it because we always had our camera offs,” she said. “We never had or could have spoken because there was so little time in all of our virtual classes.”
Several of Jocelyn’s classmates at Castro Valley High School feel the same way. Online learning made it really difficult for them to engage with what they were learning about.
“Every time I was on a Zoom call or a Google Meet call, I would just storm out and go to a different couch and just watch YouTube,” said Rico Lupian, another incoming freshman.
Months of isolation away from the classroom has helped bring down the emotional well-being among many students in the Castro Valley Unified School District, they and their teachers told KQED. School officials hope to start the healing process through art and increased access to mental health professionals.
To help students readjust to classroom life before the new school year, officials at CVUSD tripled summer school attendance. But experienced educators, like Jazz Monique Hudson, noticed something was off when the students started coming in.
"[We must process] things around anxiety and, like, learning how to be back in the classroom," she explained. "Let alone use a pencil and paper, because it's been all on a Chromebook."
Hudson gave her students a writing assignment the first week: to write down who they are. When she noticed that a lot of them were struggling to get something down on paper, she stopped the whole lesson and asked them to share instead what they were feeling at the moment.
"A lot of the journal prompts were, ‘I'm feeling anxiety about being in a classroom. I don't know how to talk to people. I don't know how to make friends’," she said.
In teaching, Hudson explains, resiliency among children can sometimes be understood as the process of a person learning how to restore themselves back to a feeling of wholeness after a difficult or traumatic event.
"But I've never seen a situation of a person moving into resiliency and going back to who they were before that trauma or before that harm," she said. "The pandemic was a trauma and a harm and it should be treated as such.”
Fostering Mental Wellness
As part of the summer school experience, the district enlisted a team of artists to teach writing courses over the summer, where students could talk about their emotions.
One of these artists is a 2016 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate, Azariah Cole-Shephard. She’s had conversations with several of her students to learn how they've dealt with everything that's happened during the pandemic. What’s struck her is how the past year has so deeply eroded their sense of self-worth.
Some of her students have complicated relationships with their parents or family members, and being in close quarters with them for over a year has affected their well-being.
Many openly hear, she said, “that they're incapable of things.”
In Cole-Shephard’s classroom, students can write about what’s been going on in their lives, using poetry as a tool to understand a little more what they’re feeling.
“Poetry is an important vehicle for trauma management and mental wellness because it teaches you how to cope with the things that are going on around you, but then also serves as a vehicle for guidance in the healing process,” she said.
She hopes that in her class, students can understand that just because they're going through a dark time in life, they don't need to stay in it.
"Giving them the ability to do things like create images to go along with the poetry or create comic strips that incorporate a story," she said, are activities that are resonating with the students.
KQED spoke with several students enrolled in the summer school program to understand what’s on their minds a few days before the fall semester starts on Aug. 10.
Jocelyn, the incoming high school freshman, said most of her family came down with COVID-19. Her brother is rarely home because he has to work.
"So I was pretty lonely, which is why I had to move in with my grandparents," Jocelyn said.
Jocelyn's grades also suffered while she struggled with learning from home. She said the quality of her educational experience dropped.
"We didn't learn a lot," Jocelyn said. "We got less than what we deserved."
One of her classmates, Gracelynn Nichol, also had to move in with her grandparents after her mother lost her job. “It was rough. My mom still doesn't have a job," she said. "My mental health was so messed up during the whole pandemic."
And for Rico Lupian, being at home all the time made it harder to process the hard news of COVID-19 infections in his family. “My mom's sister got COVID. She's cured now,” he said. “And then her whole family got COVID.”
'A Veil Has Been Lifted Off the Adults' Eyes'
While many students kept their computer cameras off during distance learning, others did not. In those cases, distance learning allowed teachers to see inside kids’ homes, giving them a real look — albeit through computer screens — at what some families and students were experiencing during the pandemic.
Marion Meadows, the district’s head of behavioral health, shared what some of the teachers noticed through their virtual classrooms.
“They could see depression,” she said. “They could see kids using drugs in the background, they could see their family life."
Learning more about how students are experiencing the pandemic was a wake-up call for teachers, who in turn relayed what they saw to administrators.
“It's like a veil has been lifted off the adults' eyes,” Meadows said.
Besides preparing classroom discussions about mental health and trauma management, Meadows says district teachers spent the past year developing anti-racist lesson plans for every single grade. If teachers intend to connect with their students, she says, they’ve got to understand how the pandemic replicated racist systems already in place.
“Lack of access to health care, socioeconomic disparities, health disparities,” she explained. “The pandemic worsened it and then added an academic piece on it and an isolation piece on it.”
It spent some of those dollars to hire more social workers and restorative justice practitioners who could train teachers on how to create spaces where students feel safe talking about what's bothering them. It even launched parent support circles to help families cope with stress.
For many students, going back to school itself is the start of healing. Seeing the inside of a classroom once again signaled that things are going back to normal. Rico thinks there is something to that.
“I finally get to see all my friends,” he said. "I get to make new friends and it just feels good just to be in school.”