‘It’s definitely been tough’: Students and staff alike continue to struggle during pandemic

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The kids, as it turns out, are not all right.

Not because they aren’t kind, or thoughtful or smart — they are — but because they’re tired, burned-out and too often struggling as they navigate their third school year during a pandemic.

“I think a lot of people are just mentally tired,” said Northwood High School Junior Oliver Ewy. “From school in general, school is stressful for just multiple reasons, and then, of course because of recent events.”

In addition to coping with the continued stressors of the pandemic, Chatham high schoolers are also — like teenagers across the country — often facing increased mental health challenges. Students are also working through traumatic news in Chatham and beyond — most recently with the deaths of beloved Northwood students Bryan Vilchis, 18, and Desmond Patterson, 16, who died following an Oct. 23 car crash.

This week, Chatham County Schools students will have Friday, Nov. 12, off “in response to the ongoing strenuous impact of the pandemic on students, families and staff,” the district’s board of education decided at a specially called meeting Oct. 25. Instead of a regular instructional day, Friday will now be one “of reflection” for students and staff, with schools closed to students and staff working remotely “for the purposes of restorative reflection,” the district said.

“As we continue through the school year, it’s clear that COVID has changed everything we thought we knew about schools and school operation, and especially this notion we call normal,” Superintendent Anthony Jackson said at that meeting. “We are finding that the social and emotional needs of both students and staff remain a primary concern for all… Our students and staff are carrying heavy loads.”

The decision followed similar calendar changes by neighboring districts in the state. Wake County Schools canceled classes for Nov. 12, extending the Nov. 11 Veterans Day holiday break by a day. (Nov. 11 is also a holiday in Chatham.) Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools also said it would give students the entire week of Thanksgiving off to support the mental health and wellness of its students and staff.

On social media, many Chatham parents and teachers expressed gratitude for the reflection day.

“I think it’s a good idea, because I know a lot of people have been really needing a break just from school and life, just overall,” Ewy said. “So I appreciate it. It’ll be nice to just have a day to kind of check out from school and not have to worry about it.”

‘It’s definitely been tough’

Selina Lopez, the Hispanic Liaison’s youth leadership program manager, said she’s tried to focus a lot on social-emotional resources in her curriculum this year as everyone is “relearning to be near one another.” For many of her students, being around so many people again, even with masks, was uncomfortable at first, and still can cause stress for some.

“It’s definitely been tough getting back into this — I wouldn’t say like, new normal, but yeah, new normal,” Lopez said. “I think students that I’ve worked with, I can definitely see the increase in anxiety. I have students who have also lost family members to COVID, and so it’s been really hard to navigate that grief process as well for a lot of students. … It’s definitely been hard.”

Vielka Gonzalez, a senior at Jordan-Matthews High School, said most of the people she knows have also experienced small challenges with their classes this year. Though her year is going well — she won the school’s third-annual holiday card art contest last month and joined a new club — she said it is still sometimes difficult to navigate school and life responsibilities with all that’s going on in the world.

For that reason, Gonzalez is thankful for the Nov. 12 reflection day.

“I think it was a good decision,” she said. “Sometimes the situation we are going through can become overwhelming, so it is a good time to reflect on what we are doing.”

Still, some students and staff wish more could be done — in terms of providing more time off, paid leave or more lax grading policies, for example. (The school district is limited in many ways in this regard by state requirements for school/working hours and grading guidelines.)

“We want our students and staff to know we see the stress the pandemic has caused and the effect it has had on mental health for many,” Jackson told the News + Record. “We want to acknowledge those issues and care for our school community. What we are able to do, we will. We want to offer support that available resources allow, while also balancing the accountability standards which we are required to meet by the state.”

Simply understanding from teachers that students are undergoing a lot of stress, Gonzalez said, would go a long way.

'I am not a superhero'

Of course, it’s not just students struggling — teachers and staff members are too. In Chatham, as is the case across the country, schools are taking what would typically be seen as drastic measures to maintain student services in the face of drastic staffing shortages. Such measures have taken the form of one-time bonuses and the utilization of school principals and teachers as bus drivers and nutrition services workers, but the stress caused by shortages still remains.

For Judit Dorado-Zimo, an ESL teacher at Chatham Middle School, this school year has been difficult in myriad ways. She worries for her 22-month-old at home who cannot yet be vaccinated, and has only seen her mother, who lives in Spain, once since March of 2020 due to COVID-border closures. (Her mother plans to visit later this month, as Europe’s borders opened Monday.)

“My mental health has been so deteriorated by this school year that even trying to put down in words how I feel is an impossible task,” Dorado-Zimo said.

A teacher since 2008, this is the first time in her career that Dorado-Zimo has considered quitting. And not because of anything the administration has or hasn’t done — she’s thankful for Jackson’s advocacy for teachers and for the Nov. 12 day of reflection — but because of how teaching during the pandemic has impacted her.

“My cup is completely empty and at this point I don’t know how to fill it back again,” she said. “I love teaching and I care for my students ... but I also need to think of myself.”

Throughout the pandemic, some parents and community members have berated teachers for the challenges children have faced during the pandemic. Last year, some suggested teachers were lazy or pampered for hesitating to return to in-person learning. All of this took place as teachers and administrators navigated dramatically increased workloads during remote and hybrid learning, the News + Record previously reported.

This year, though Chatham schools are back to fully in-person learning, many teachers and staff members have extra responsibilities due to both staffing shortages and COVID protocols. Several teachers have anonymously told the News + Record they’re also struggling this school year.

“We went from being ‘superheroes’ — I don’t want to be a superhero, I am not a superhero, I am a teacher, I am professional, I want to be treated and seen as such — to being the worst workers of the country for being vocal on not feeling safe, and the pressure of the media on having to fill in a year and half of pandemic of what they call ‘learning loss’ in the first months of the school year,” Dorado-Zimo said. “All of that has created an atmosphere that is hard to sustain.”

News + Record staff writer Victoria Johnson contributed reporting to this story.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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