The same message from Vermont high school students was repeated over and over again: at-home ‘Zoom’ learning causes isolation, stress, and doesn’t teach much.
That’s the takeaway from a ‘virtual town meeting’ held by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders Monday evening to discuss how students have experienced the social, emotional, and mental health challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nearly 500 Vermont students joined the town meeting, which was held via video. The event was also streamed live on Sanders’ social media platforms, with more than 163,000 people tuning in. After Sanders’ introductory remarks, each student panelist shared a statement about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The students discussed a variety of issues, including the difficulty of virtual learning; the loss of extracurricular, college, and job opportunities; loneliness, social isolation and mental health concerns; unreliable broadband; and lack of sufficient help and resources.
Iva Armour-Jones from Brattleboro High School said, “This year’s public health crisis has been detrimental at times to my mental wellbeing and to the wellbeing of a lot of people I really care about. A lot of the mental health issues that I and my peers have faced has been exacerbated, not just by the isolation and uncertainty of this time, but by the continued rigor and pace of our education and lives, with limited mental health resources available.”
Dustin Beloin from North Country Career Center spoke about the challenges he experienced with online learning. “One of the biggest struggles for me was staying connected. At home I struggled with Wi-Fi, living in rural Vermont. I have always been a straight ‘A’ student, but missing the connection to teachers took a toll on me. As a hands-on-worker, sitting behind a computer for 8 hours a day with no physical connection to teachers and classmates was really hard,” said Dustin.
Colin Wesley Palmer, a YouthBuild student said, “Poor quality and glitching zoom calls interfered with my learning and the amount of time I spent on classroom assignments. It became clear that face-to-face interaction was necessary for me to have a successful learning experience.”
Many of the students commented on missing social interaction with their peers. Elly Bliss from St. Johnsbury Academy said, “The largest hurdle I’ve faced in the past year has been isolation. Support systems are important and I had almost all of mine fall into disrepair.”
In addition to missing interaction at school, the students also spoke about their inability to participate in extracurricular activities, and the effect that had on their mental health and wellbeing. From performing arts to athletics, several students spoke about the importance of these activities in their overall high school experience, saying it has been difficult to be unable to pursue their passions. Isabella LaFemina from Rutland High School said, “It was an acute mental health issue for us. A lot of people were going to school six hours a day, and had nothing to look forward to after school.”
Following the students’ remarks, Sanders led the group in a discussion and answered questions from the student audience. Sanders provided information on the recently passed federal relief package, including a significant increase in funding for mental health care and community health centers will allow Vermont to expand services, and bring needed health care workers to the state. He also discussed the $352 million in education funding that is coming to the state of Vermont to help schools safely reopen and to support the academic and emotional needs of students, including a tripling of funding for after school and summer programming.
Lively discussion around summer programming included ideas ranging from job opportunities, college and career counseling, virtual or in-person college fairs, community service, performance opportunities, civic engagement events, trauma education and mental health programs.
Holly Morehouse, the Executive Director of Vermont Afterschool, is currently working with the state and Sanders on how to best use the new federal funds for after school and summer programming. Holly spoke about the possibility of performing arts and sports opportunities, as well as the need to continue food and nutrition programs. “This summer, with the dollars coming though, this is an opportunity to do something different and more for our teenagers. We can help teens and youth re-enter and rebuild connections with mentors and friends. Yes, it’s about jobs and learning, but it’s also about the activities and connections that feed the soul,” said Holly. “We can make summer 2021 different than anything we’ve ever imagined for young people in our state.”
Phyllis Currao, a school counselor from Proctor Junior/Senior High School, said that she and many other school counselors are willing to work over the summer and develop counseling programming for students that addresses their mental wellness and helps them assimilate back into school and social life. She encouraged the students to reach out to their school counselors, saying, “This has been an unprecedented year, and unfortunately as a school counselor, we have not been able to do our typical counseling. I’m really encouraging you to reach out to your counselor. We want to be there, we want to help. We love our students.”
Vermont students who would like more information about mental health services can contact:
COVID Support Vermont: https://covidsupport.org/
Vermont 2-1-1: https://www.vermont211.org/
National Alliance on Mental Illness – Vermont: https://namivt.org/
Vermont students can learn about existing afterschool and summer programming by visiting Vermont Afterschool’s site: https://www.vermontafterschool.org/.
Vermonters in crisis and seeking mental health support can contact:
Vermont Crisis Text Line by texting “VT” to 741741
Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255
Vermonters in need of assistance can reach Senator Sanders’ office by phone at 800-339-9834 or online at: https://www.sanders.senate.gov/contact/.
This article adapted from press release by Sen. Bernie Sanders.