Even though he hasn’t graduated yet, Tristan Farrell feels as though in some ways he’s already finished with high school.
“There are a lot of people that I probably won’t see again after this year,” he said during the Washougal School District’s Nov. 18 virtual board meeting, “and it feels like we’ve already said ‘goodbye.’”
The Washougal High School (WHS) senior has struggled to adjust to the district’s remote learning model, in place since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He starts to lose focus after staring at a screen for multiple hours at a time. He desperately misses in-person interactions with teachers and friends. And the three-sport athlete worries that he’s already donned the Panther orange and black for the final time.
During the meeting, he pleaded to the district’s leaders to allow him and his fellow students to return to their classrooms.
“As each day goes by, I start to lose faith because nothing has changed over the last two-plus months,” he said. “I know that not being able to interact with my friends is bringing my outlook on life down, and it is even worse for others. Letting us back into school to have an education will definitely increase morale for a lot of people.”
Farrell was one of several students and parents who voiced their concerns about the district’s approach to social and emotional wellness during the meeting.
WSD Superintendent Mary Templeton later told the Post-Record that even though the district is addressing the issue in a variety of ways, it wants to do more.
“The social connection is not being made for students at the same level as it was before, and we take that seriously. Social and emotional wellness continues to be paramount in our minds,” she said. “We need to address mental health wellness and provide additional opportunities for students to connect.”
During the meeting, Washougal resident Brad Maas referenced a variety of statistics that indicate that student mental health is suffering during the pandemic. He said that the Center for Disease Control reported in June that 25.5 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days, and 24.7 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds started or increased substance use.
“If we extrapolate that scientific data from the CDC, I believe that many Washougal School District students are in grave danger,” Maas said. “For many kids, school provides the only normalcy in their lives. There are other threats besides COVID-19, and I think it’s naïve to think that class grades and attendance are reliable indicators of a student’s mental health.”
Washougal resident Dawn Hardley said that the district leaders are “causing permanent and irreparable mental, emotional and physical damage” to students.
“The fact that your teachers’ union does not feel that these kids’ educational, mental, physical and emotional health is essential enough to have them go back to school is beyond disgusting,” she said. “I had a straight-A, mentally and physically healthy child until March 2020, and it is now nothing but a daily mental and emotional struggle for him, his father and I to get through each day because he is not an at-home learner. The educational system and government has completely failed our children.”
To address these concerns, WHS has created a “culture and climate” team that is working to embed social and emotional wellness into the school’s curriculums. The school also has a “spirit” team that is brainstorming safe activities, such as a drive-in movie night, for students.
The district is also making its counselors available for virtual and in-person sessions, and providing a “hotline” for students to call if they’re not feeling well.
“Teachers are taking time to check in with their kids before they get into the academics to address their mental wellness first,” Templeton said. “If teachers can build strong relationships with their students, they can establish a baseline, and know what to expect and be ready to support them if something does surface. We want to create an environment where a student feels willing to share if they’re struggling.”
The remote learning environment has presented challenges for students in other ways as well. During the Nov. 18 meeting, WHS student Taylor Paulsen said that she hasn’t been academically challenged nearly as much as he was in a traditional classroom setting, lamenting that assignments have, in her view, been “dumbed down” to meet the needs of failing students.
“In one of my classes, we mostly just watch YouTube videos on our own and answer some questions, and that’s supposed to be our learning for the week,” she said. “I feel there are a lot of projects or assignments that are being cut out of classes due to time or the difficulty (of implementing them) outside of the classroom. Everything has been simplified. I would like everyone to be held to a high standard. I think the staff should push us to succeed, not just to make things easier for the students who don’t try.”
Washougal resident Shelby Multanen echoed similar concerns, saying that her two Jemtegaard Middle School students “are not rising. They’re floundering. They’re bored. They’re withdrawing from learning, and they’re being overlooked.”
Templeton said that “students are not content with what we have, and (she doesn’t) disagree with them.”
“They want to be with their teachers,” she said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie and humor that happens in the classroom. It can be a magical and wonderful place to be when a strong culture is developed. Students feel supported, and that they belong, and that their teacher loves them. They tell us they want more of that. We’re trying to get there as quickly as can.”