Some Kalamazoo students are still recovering from virtual school isolation

This story was written by Regina Kibezi as part of the Kalamazoo Voices of Youth program. The photographic illustration is by Adam Ghonimy of the Voices of Youth program. The Voices of Youth program is a collaboration between Southwest Michigan Second Wave and KYD Network, underwritten by the Stryker Johnston Foundation.

Javon Harris sits at his desk video chatting with his teacher for his weekly social and emotional learning check-in. From the screen, his teacher runs through the usual prompts.

“How do you feel mentally?” »

“On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you feel? »

“Remember to take breaks.”

A cartoon video of a colorful monster appears to explain the signs of depression. The teacher asks questions about the video and the same two people talk.

Harris, a junior at Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, was invited to these weekly tapings throughout the 2020-21 school year while Kalamazoo Public Schools continued a virtual program. It didn’t take long for Harris and his classmates to start giving up and ignoring those pleas.

“It wasn’t really personal and it didn’t apply to everyone, so it was redundant,” Harris says. “It was bland. It was like unseasonable food.”

A virtual school year has proven challenging for both teachers and students. As teachers tried to connect, some students said they felt isolated at home. Students and teachers often had different ideas for making the school year normal.

Kalamazoo Public Schools released a stakeholder survey of parents, teachers and staff ahead of the third quarter of the 2021 school year. The survey found that 53% of parents and 83% of teaching staff said they wanted to stay virtual.

‘Chilling’ experience

Students. According to Harris, virtual learning was a one-size-fits-all solution that didn’t take into account each student’s personal circumstances.

At times, Harris felt like he was being compared to other students and felt that his success didn’t match theirs, despite various obstacles.

“When they generalize and use everything, thinking it works for everyone, it makes students who need that extra little help and that extra little push feel like they don’t have doesn’t matter,” he said. “(They would say) ‘It works for everyone. Why isn’t it working for you? And then you were just left behind because they didn’t have more time to spend with you.

Harris described the lack of social interaction as “crippling” to her mental health and her academics.

“It was a lot harder because you were sitting alone behind the screen at home,” he said. “Not everyone has a strong support system when it comes to school, so it was harder for them to really stay accountable to themselves because they weren’t. They needed someone to be responsible for them.

Harris began his high school career as an A and B student, but virtual school left him feeling disconnected and lonely to the point that he stopped taking online classes. He finished the school year passing only two classes. He started his freshman year at a sophomore status due to lost credits.

He loaded his schedule with extra classes and summer schools to get out of the hole and get back on track to apply for college. Harris said he became persistent in emailing teachers and counselors for help.

Resumption of face-to-face lessons

Kalamazoo students were back in class for the 2021-22 school year.

Franklin Sallis, a health and physical education teacher at Loy Norrix, has noticed the mental change in students. The pandemic has placed even greater emphasis on social-emotional learning, a shift Sallis said he’s seen since graduating from high school in 2004.

“When I was in school, we didn’t focus on stress, depression and suicide like we do today,” he said. “There’s more of a sense of urgency because of what people are dealing with.”

Breaks in the school day can be an effective tool for mental health, Sallis said. He takes his class outside for 15 minutes and brings out soccer balls or just lets the students go for a walk.

Part of its mental health program includes guest speakers from Kalamazoo’s crisis center, Gryphon Place. Sallis understands that four days spent talking about stress, depression and suicide prevention can feel overwhelming for students. On the last day of class, he offers students to vote on a Friday activity to give them a mental break.

The key to creating a safe classroom is taking an individualized approach to student mental health, he said.

“There will always be people who don’t necessarily deal with stress the way other people do,” Sallis said.

Michigan State recognizes that this generation of students will have greater mental health needs after the pandemic uprooted their lives at such a critical time.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has proposed $361 million for school mental health services. That money would be used to hire mental health professionals and open 40 new clinics across the state for students.

Regina Kibezi“There’s always room for improvement when it comes to mental health,” Sallis said. “It’s one of the essential health skills. It is something that is always learned and the learning never really stops.

Regina Kibezi is a second year student at Loy Norrix High School. She participated in the Voices of Youth Kalamazoo 2022 program which took place in April and May


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