Back to school season is upon us and the stakes are high for students and families across California. Many are starting at new campuses, meeting new teachers and navigating social settings they haven’t been exposed to since before the pandemic began. And if that isn’t already overwhelming enough, young people are also carrying the trauma of the last 18 months of political turmoil, racist violence and the more personal grief of losing family or loved ones to the ongoing pandemic.
This is why we remain committed to Rebuild and ReImagine schools, starting with a Restorative Restart; where students, educators and school communities can build relationships, address mental health needs, center racial equity and prioritize healing before diving into hard deadlines and core curriculum. Because we all know that students can’t learn if they don’t feel safe or supported in school.
Several districts across the state have already committed to a Restorative Restart including West Contra Costa Unified, Oakland Unified, Long Beach Unified and East Side San Jose Union High School District. Those districts are starting this fall semester with a variety of new resources and routines, including 1×1 check-ins between teachers and families and including student voice in decision making inside the classroom.
Students Are Dealing with More than Just Schoolwork
A huge part of Restorative Restart depends on seeing students as whole people, and not just a number in the school system. CFJ student leaders Jasmine Vo and Aniyah Story recently shared their experiences of why this support is needed for a piece in EdSource chronicling student grief. Our students remind us that educators and school admin need to prioritize mental health and relationships so students are seen as whole people, with hopes, losses and needs that exist beyond the four-walls of the classroom.
Sections of Jasmine and Aniyah’s stories are below and you can read the full story at EdSource.
Jasmine Vo, a senior at Oakland High School in Oakland Unified, saw numerous close family members hospitalized with Covid last winter. Her grandfather, who likely contracted the disease at work, died of the disease in early January after a month in the intensive care unit.
Jasmine was devastated. Unable to focus on her schoolwork, she withdrew emotionally and fell behind academically. She felt her friends wouldn’t understand. Her teachers gave her extensions on assignments, but it wasn’t enough, she said.
“They moved the deadlines a week. But you can’t get over a death in a week,” Jasmine said. “Every time I tried to concentrate on school, I’d start thinking, should I be with my grandmother right now? My aunt and uncle are still in the hospital — are they going to die, too? It was very hard. I literally broke down. I was not OK at all.”
Eventually, Jasmine’s parents intervened. They told her, “It’s tough, but you still need to get your work done. Life goes on. You’ll get over this,” she said. Jasmine caught up with school, finished the year with straight A’s and is applying to colleges.
“I think schools should give students time to get together and talk, offer more counseling,” she said. “I was able to pull out of it, but it might be harder for other students.”
Aniyah Story, a high school senior enrolled in independent study in Oakland Unified, lost her aunt to cancer in November. Although her aunt didn’t die of Covid, the pandemic has greatly impacted Aniyah’s grieving experience, she said. She couldn’t see her aunt before she died; her family couldn’t gather to mourn, and Aniyah felt isolated from her friends. Ordinarily, she’d reach out to a teacher, but she only knew her teachers virtually and didn’t feel comfortable talking to them about personal matters.
“I was already depressed before. This just put a big strain on me,” she said. “I had always been a solid student, but that semester was the worst I’ve ever done in school.”
Eventually, she reached out to an adult at the wellness center where she was attending school at the time. She also began seeing a therapist outside of school and started painting and practicing yoga. Now she feels a greater level of acceptance of her aunt’s death. She still misses her, but she’s able to focus on school and college applications.
“I know a lot of people who lost family members last year,” Aniyah said. “Schools need to focus less on academics right now and instead try to make school feel like a safe place. They need to focus on relationships. They need to make sure students know what resources are available to them. And they need to say it over and over and over.”
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