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Burlington High School Students Feel the Impact of Remote Learning

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Illustration - LUKE EASTMAN
  • Luke Eastman
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Burlington High School senior Parker Ballard misses high-fiving his friends in the hallway and doing hands-on chemistry experiments. First-year student Myriam Huener longs for the time when it was a given that she'd leave her house every day. And sophomore David Mutar wishes he were able to casually ask his math teacher questions when he doesn't understand something.

Ballard, Huener and Mutar are three of the roughly 970 teens at BHS who are navigating the impacts of many months of remote schooling. While about 84 percent of Vermont public high school students have resumed at least some in-person instruction this fall, BHS students haven't returned to their building.

The pandemic is not to blame: The day before in-person classes were to begin in September, the school closed indefinitely because elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a cancer-causing chemical, had been discovered on the North Avenue campus.

Mental health professionals, parents and the kids themselves say the prolonged period of virtual instruction has been bad for students' psychological well-being. And while Vermont Education Secretary Dan French has characterized elementary school kids as "more vulnerable" to academic and developmental harm when they're not in school, national data show that adolescents are suffering, too. The big kids, it seems, aren't all right.

"School was a place to just get away from all the distractions and focus on one thing," Mutar said. At home, he said, he's surrounded by electronics and his short attention span sometimes leads him to abandon his mountains of schoolwork to play video games. And it's difficult to get individualized help in a remote-learning format. Consequently, his grades are suffering, especially in math.

"It's not working out," he said. "It's just really hard."

Ballard, the senior student, said he was really looking forward to the September start of his final year. Because he and his classmates hadn't been in school for so long, "It was going to be the best first day times three," he said.

There are glimmers of hope. Last week, BHS students started a half day of in-person learning at Edmunds elementary and middle schools in downtown Burlington while plans are in the works to transform the former Macy's store into a temporary school. Those renovations will take until at least the end of February, Burlington School District superintendent Tom Flanagan said.

Some families aren't waiting around. About 25 students have transferred out of BHS since the beginning of the school year, according to district spokesperson Russ Elek. Around a dozen of them — including Ballard's ninth-grade sister — have enrolled at Rice Memorial High School, a private Catholic school in South Burlington that offers four days a week of in-person learning.

The other departing students have moved away, used school choice to transfer to another public school or switched to homeschooling, Elek said.

The students who remain have been left to slog their way through the semester on district-supplied Chromebooks.

That has underscored "the importance of social and emotional learning that happens in person," said Flanagan, who started on the job in July. Though he says the district has developed a strong model for online learning, data show that "virtual learning programs across the country don't have a great engagement and success rate."

Unhappy with the situation, some parents formed Open BHS, a group that's pushed the district to restart in-person learning at the North Avenue campus. Suzy Garrity, a member whose daughter is a BHS first-year student, said she's received "desperate emails" from parents whose children are struggling psychologically.

Pre-pandemic, some of these students were outgoing, athletic and academically successful and hadn't experienced mental health problems, she added.

Garrity and the 130 members of her group argue that the state has overblown the health risks posed by PCBs, especially when compared to the damage social isolation can inflict on students.

The effects of that isolation have been documented nationally. A study released in June by America's Promise Alliance, an organization geared to improving the lives of young people, found that 30 percent of 13- to 19-year-olds reported feeling unhappy or depressed more often than usual this spring, when remote learning was in full swing. And data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in November show that between April and October of this year, mental health-related emergency room visits for 12- to 17-year-olds were approximately 31 percent higher than in the same period in 2019.

The local picture reflects these national trends. Maggie Weintraub, a school counselor at BHS, said she's seeing "a pretty wide range" of reactions in students, including increased anxiety and depression, screen fatigue, and difficulty learning at home and staying engaged. "Mostly, we see kids just missing other kids," Weintraub said. "The socialization piece is really big."

"It's difficult to be motivated and happy and emotionally well when you don't have that outdoor time or time with friends," said Huener, the first-year student. Because she's just started high school and half the kids in her classes are from a different middle school, "It's hard to connect with students and teachers and feel comfortable," she said. Most kids turn their cameras off during virtual classes, exacerbating that feeling, she added.

Sophomore Damascene Niyongere says her online learning is often interrupted by members of her household playing music or her younger brother coming into the room where she's working. Sometimes, with 20 students in an online class, it's difficult to find a way to ask questions. Earlier in the fall, her Chromebook would sometimes crash or load slowly, which made it difficult to access her work.

Annalisa MacDonald is assistant director of school services at the Howard Center, which contracts with the Burlington School District to provide mental health services to students. Since the pandemic started, she's seen an increase in stress, anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and isolation in the kids she works with — feelings their caregivers experience, too.

These conditions can be magnified in students who are learning entirely online, especially if their home lives are unstable, MacDonald added. Students of color, English language learners and those with learning challenges are especially vulnerable.

That's what one mother of a BHS student has found. The parent, who asked to remain anonymous to protect the identity of her child, said that when school went remote in the spring, things quickly went downhill for her son, then a junior with learning differences. He has never loved "the 'school' part of school, but he loves the social part," she said. When the pandemic took that away from him, he lost all motivation to engage in schoolwork.

In the spring, she said, he logged on to his online classes so that his attendance would be counted, but then he tuned out or went back to sleep. As a result, he failed three classes.

She credits his teachers and counselors with working hard to get him back on track. They let him make up missing work this fall, and he turned his spring failing grades into passes. His special educator began coming to his house to check in, bringing him little treats like homemade cookies or something called "Thinking Putty" to help him concentrate while studying. His college counselor has also stopped by.

"Instead of giving up and letting go, they are showing up at our doorstep," his mother said.

LeVar Barrino, the student achievement adviser at BHS, uses bags of gummy bears and messages scrawled on sticky notes as secret weapons. He leaves them on students' doors to let them know there's a caring adult to provide help if they need it.

Barrino, a member of a team that helps students engage in school and resolve conflicts, said he and his colleagues have been "boots on the ground" since COVID-19 hit, helping to distribute food and Chromebooks and checking in on kids who are struggling or disengaged. He also helps run weekly afterschool programs for students of color — My Brother's Keeper and My Sister's Keeper — out of the O.N.E. Community Center so they can connect in person. A three-day-a-week afterschool homework club also operates from that space.

Team sports, which 275 BHS students participated in this fall, have also allowed students to connect face-to-face.

Huener said playing field hockey this fall "helped me stay in a good head space." Mutar put it more bluntly: "If I didn't have soccer, I probably would have gone insane."

Winter sport athletes won't necessarily have the same outlet: Given the recent surge in coronavirus cases, Gov. Phil Scott postponed the season until further notice.

BHS students have had other opportunities for in-person interaction, including some physical education and music classes, as well as pop-up choir performances, Elek said. School counselors also offer drop-in office hours, in-person or through Google Meet, for students who need support. Recently, the district rented a 14,000-square-foot space above L.L.Bean on Cherry Street to create the Seahorse Center, an office space for teachers and staff to use for one-on-one and small-group meetings. It's just down the street from the future downtown home of BHS.

Some students have looked beyond school to meet their needs. In June, Ballard got a part-time job as a fry cook at the Farmhouse Tap & Grill, which allows him to work with his hands and be around other people; he calls it "a refuge."

This spring, he also joined the Vermont 251 Club, an organization that encourages members to visit the state's 251 towns and cities. He recently checked the last one off his list.

In November, the school board approved a three-and-a-half-year lease agreement with the owners of the Macy's building. If all goes smoothly, Flanagan anticipates that the space would be ready to welcome students for two days a week of in-person learning by the end of February. In the interim, high schoolers will receive half a day of in-person learning at Edmunds on Wednesdays, the day the younger students learn remotely.

One thing is clear: Students seem eager to turn the page on fully electronic learning.

"I have high hopes," Mutar said of returning to school in the Macy's space. "I can't wait to get to school."

Ballard said that learning at home wasn't bad in the spring, but he's hopeful he can spend the last semester of his high school career in school, at least part time. He compared the situation to winter in Vermont: The first snow of the season is pretty nice, but by mid-February it's just gray and cold and everyone is over it.

"There was a little novelty before," he said, "but now, it's just sludge."

The original print version of this article was headlined "'It's Just Really Hard'"