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In Castro Valley, Students and Teachers Work Together To Heal the Scars of the Pandemic

Jocelyn Barajas is bent over a soup of crushed strawberries, holding a pipette.

She’s a rising high school freshman in Castro Valley taking summer classes this year. Her science class has started a new experiment, with their goal being to extract DNA from strawberries.

At first, Jocelyn was not thrilled with the idea of summer school. Going through her last year of middle school during a pandemic made her lose some faith in education. All her classes were online and she says teachers never gave kids a chance to share what they were going through.

“People probably went through depression and we didn’t know about it because we always had our camera offs,” she said. “We never had or could have spoken because there was so little time in all of our virtual classes.” Several of Jocelyn’s classmates at Castro Valley High School feel the same way. Online learning made it really difficult for them to engage with what they were learning about.

“Every time I was on a Zoom call or a Google Meet call, I would just storm out and go to a different couch and just watch YouTube,” said Rico Lupian, another incoming freshman student.

Months of isolation away from the classrooms have helped bring down the emotional wellbeing among many students in the Castro Valley Unified School District, they and their teachers told KQED. School officials hope to start the healing process through art and increased access to mental health professionals.

To help students readjust to classroom life before the new school year, officials at Castro Valley Unified School District tripled summer school attendance. But experienced educators, like Jazz Monique Hudson, noticed something was off when the students started coming in.

She is an arts educator and a poet laureate of Oakland who teaches writing and poetry, as part of the Freedom Soul Education Initiative which uses a culturally relevant curriculum. “We can not approach education the same way we did before,” she said. “Not at all.”

Jazz Monique Hudson is an arts educator poet laureate of Oakland who teaches writing and poetry in Castro Valley Unified School District. For her, working with kids in-person again has been an opportunity to learn more about how they have been processing trauma and what she can do as an educator to support them. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

“Processing things around anxiety and like learning how to be back in the classroom,” she explained. “Let alone use a pencil and paper, because it’s been all on a Chromebook.”

Hudson gave her students a writing assignment the first week: to write down who they are. When she noticed that a lot of them were struggling to get something down on paper, she stopped the whole lesson and asked to share instead what they were feeling at the moment.

“A lot of the journal prompts were ‘I’m feeling anxiety about being in a classroom. I don’t know how to talk to people. I don’t know how to make friends’,” she said.

In teaching, Hudson explains, resiliency among children can sometimes be understood as the process of a person learning how to restore themselves back to a feeling of wholeness after a difficult or traumatic event.

“But I’ve never seen a situation of a person moving into resiliency and going back to who they were before that trauma or before that harm,” she said. “The pandemic was a trauma and a harm and it should be treated as such.”

Angela Futch’s writing classroom in Castro Valley High School. Daily activities, like sharing with the class how you’re feeling, are meant to help students stay connected to their feelings and articulate what’s going in their life. Monique Hudson, educator at Castro Valley Unified, mentions that months of online learning and isolation has made it harder for students to communicate. “We can not approach education the same way we did before,” she said. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Fostering Mental Wellness

As part of the summer school experience, the district enlisted a team of artists to teach writing courses over the summer, where students could talk about their emotions.

One of these artists is another of Oakland’s poet laureates, Azariah Cole-Shepard. She’s had conversations with several of her students to learn how they have dealt with everything that has happened during the pandemic. What’s struck her is how the past year has so deeply eroded their sense of self-worth.

Some of her students have complicated relationships with their parents or family members and being in close quarters with them for over a year has affected their well-being.

Many openly hear, she said, “that they’re incapable of things.”

In Cole-Shephard’s classroom, students can write what’s been going on in their lives, using poetry as a tool to understand a little more what they’re feeling.

“Poetry is an important vehicle for trauma management and mental wellness because it one teaches you how to cope with the things that are going on around you, but then also serves as a vehicle for guidance in the healing process,” said Cole-Shephard.

She hopes that in her class, students can understand that just because they are going through a dark time in life, that doesn’t mean they need to stay in it.

“Giving them the ability to do things like create images to go along with the poetry or create comic strips that incorporate a story,” she said, are activities that are resonating with the students.

KQED spoke with several students enrolled in the summer school program to understand what’s on their mind a few days before the fall semester starts on August 10.

Jocelyn, the incoming high school freshman, said most of her family came down with COVID-19. Her brother is rarely home because he has to work.

“So I was pretty lonely, which is why I had to move in with my grandparents,” Jocelyn said.

Jocelyn’s grades also suffered while she struggled with learning from home. She said the quality of her educational experience dropped.

“We didn’t learn a lot,” Jocelyn said. “We got less than what we deserved.”

One of her classmates, Gracelynn Nichol also had to move in with her grandparents after her mother lost her job. “It was rough. My mom still doesn’t have a job,” she said. “My mental health was so messed up during the whole pandemic.”

And for Rico Lupian, being at home all the time made it harder to process the hard news of COVID-19 infections in his family. “My mom’s sister got COVID. She’s cured now,” he said. “And then her whole family got COVID.”

Educator and poet Angela Futch is part of a team of artists brought in by Castro Valley Unified to use writing classes to help high schoolers express some of the trauma they dealth with during the pandemic. (Julia McEvoy)

‘A Veil has Been Lifted Off the Adults’ Eyes’

While many students kept their computer cameras off during distance learning, others did not. In those cases, distance learning allowed teachers to see inside kids’ homes, giving them a real look — albeit through computer screens — at what some families and students were experiencing during the pandemic.

Marion Meadows, the district’s head of behavioral health, shared what some of the teachers noticed through their virtual classrooms.

“They could see depression,” she said. “They could see kids using drugs in the background, they could see their family life,” she said.

Learning more about how students are experiencing the pandemic was a wake-up call for teachers, who in turn relayed what they saw to administrators.

“It’s like a veil has been lifted off the adults’ eyes,” Meadows said.

Besides preparing classroom discussions about mental health and trauma management, Meadows says district teachers spent the past year developing anti-racist lesson plans for every single grade. If teachers intend to connect with their students, she says, they’ve got to understand how the pandemic replicated racist systems already in place.

“Lack of access to health care, social socioeconomic disparities, health disparities,” she explained. “The pandemic worsened it and then added an academic piece on it and an isolation piece on it.”

And thanks to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, part of the federal government’s CARES ACT, the district has money to actually translate the teachers’ plans into action.

It spent some of those dollars to hire more social workers and restorative justice practitioners that could train teachers on how to create spaces where students feel safe talking about what’s bothering them. It even launched parent support circles to help families cope with stress.

For many students, going back to school itself is the start of healing. Seeing the inside of a classroom once again signaled that things are going back to normal again. Rico thinks there is something to that.

“I finally get to see all my friends,” he said. I get to make new friends and it just feels good just to be in school.”

Copyright 2021 KQED