Returning to school after a year away has been strange for Centralia students and school staff alike, but overall, students report that the shift to in-person learning has been beneficial to their mental health.
“I’ll be honest — going back was a bit awkward at first, we’re not used to it,” said Mazzi Nowicki, Centralia High School ASB’s school board representative, in a report to the Centralia School Board on Wednesday. “It’s been over a year since any of us have been back, but we’re slowly adjusting, I think.”
The middle and high schools began hybrid learning models the week before last, with Centralia High School welcoming a total of 330 ninth through 12th grade students back into the building in two groups. In-person school days are from approximately 7:40 a.m. to 12:35 p.m., with A and B groups alternating days for in-person and virtual instruction. About 260 students — roughly 25% of the school’s total student population — opted to stay virtual.
Since coming back, the ASB leadership teams have been brainstorming different projects to boost student morale, such as spirit week. One group is even considering a building competition in the game Minecraft.
“There’s just different kinds of things that are being planned that will kind of bring up I think the overall mental wellbeing of the students that has kind of been suffering since we haven’t been able to be in school,” Nowicki said.
Because of how long they’ve been away from school, some students have reported feeling disconnected from their teachers and classmates and unmotivated to engage with their schoolwork.
“A lot of this comes naturally from COVID-19 and what students have gone through. It’s a lot. School is a big part of it because that’s a lot of their life, but also it’s just their social life — a lot of things overall have been affected by COVID,” said Stetson McEllaney, a professional trainee at Cascade Community Health who works with youth leadership skills groups throughout Lewis County.
He has been meeting with the Chehalis-based group, which includes students ages 11 through 18 from the Chehalis and Centralia areas, since January and has encouraged them to talk about how their lives are going, and any ways they feel they’ve been impacted by the pandemic. McEllaney gave a report to the Centralia School Board on March 24 on the status of mental health, based on the conversations he’s had with the students in his Chehalis-based youth group.
He clarified that the findings are “not interpretations that we made or assessments, these are things that students have said are going on.”
“In our perspective,” he said, “we’ve gotten to interact with students that are doing well, and we’ve gotten to interact with some students who aren’t doing so well, and there’s a really common thread with students that are reporting that they’re not doing so well regarding social support.”
While McEllaney praised school staff and teachers’ work in adapting to the virtual learning environment, he said that students — especially students who didn’t know their current teachers and classmates before they shifted to online learning — reported they’ve been falling behind and lack motivation to catch up.
“Students are just giving up. Instead of just advocating for their needs, they’re just saying ‘nope, I’m just gonna be behind,’” said McEllaney, adding that many said they don’t feel confident enough to ask questions on Zoom calls or to talk in breakout rooms due to insecurities about drawing attention to themselves — and they don’t feel like there are many negative consequences to being behind due to how uncertain schools themselves have been about how best to operate during the pandemic.
Students who have returned to in-person learning reported anxiety over COVID-19 protocols, and lingering feelings of isolation from not being able to see their friends, but overall, returning to in-person learning helped them feel more connected to their classmates and studies, McEllaney said.
“My concern is, while I think returning back to school is going to help students … with social support and feeling confident to raise their hands in the classroom because they’re face-to-face … I do have concerns about students that choose to remain online and the disconnect that they’re going to continue to feel as they see some of their friends on camera at school,” he said.
Centralia Superintendent Dr. Lisa Grant thanked McEllaney for his report and stressed the importance of coming up with proactive solutions to help ensure both virtual and in-person students can be successful.
“Knowing that allows us to help respond in ways that hopefully are proactive, but that’s an ongoing conversation we are having,” she said.
One of Centralia’s ASB students’ biggest challenges right now, Nowicki said, is figuring out how best to involve both in-person students and the students staying virtual in morale-boosting programs and events.
“It’s a little bit difficult, since there’s not as much participation from virtual kids, but we’re still trying to figure out that and we’ll get through that,” she said.
She added that she would like to put out a survey to students within the next week or so, after they’ve had a little more time to adjust to being back, to check in on how the adjustment has been going.