After COVID-19 forced Olivia Goulding’s Indiana middle school to switch back to remote learning late last year, the math teacher lost contact with many of her students. So she and some colleagues came up with a plan: visiting them under the guise of dropping off Christmas gifts.
One day in December, they set out with cards and candy canes and dropped by the homes of every eighth grader at Sarah Scott Middle School in Terre Haute, a city of more than 60,000 near the Illinois border where both Indiana State University and the federal death row are located. They saw firsthand how these kids, many living in poverty and dysfunctional families, were coping with the pandemic’s disruptions to their academic and social routines.
“You just have a better concept of where they’re coming from and the challenges they really do have,” Goulding said. “When you’re looking at that electronic grade book and Sally Lou hasn’t turned in something, you remember back in your mind: ‘Oh, yeah, Sally Lou was home by herself, taking care of three younger siblings when I stopped by, and I spotted her helping Johnny with his math and she was helping this one with something else.’”
The school’s experience provides a window into the hardships millions of families across the country have endured since last March, and exemplifies why education isn’t the only reason many Americans want schools to fully reopen. Schools like Sarah Scott help hold their communities together by providing households with wide-ranging support, which has become much tougher during the pandemic.
“A lot of our students are struggling emotionally,” said Sarah Scott’s principal, Scotia Brown. “They’re stressed because they’re falling behind in their work. Or they’re stressed because of the conditions they’re living with at home.”
Even before the coronavirus struck, kids at Sarah Scott faced significant obstacles that compounded the normal social challenges and surging hormones of middle school. They live in Vigo County, which has the state’s highest rate of child poverty and high rates of child neglect. Nearly 90% of students qualified for free or reduced-fee lunches. Some showed up needing to shower and change at the school, which has a food pantry that also offers clothes and hygiene products.
Things got more difficult for students when COVID threw Sarah Scott’s normal schedule into disarray. Initially, the school went totally remote, then moved to partially in-person for the start of the 2020-21 school year. When COVID spiked in October, Sarah Scott went remote again because not enough substitute teachers could fill in for quarantining staff. Since January, students have been spending part of each week in the school building, with no plans as of early March to open fully.
Kids were given laptops to use at home. But internet access can be problematic.
“Internet has been the worst,” said Samantha Riley, mother of seventh grader Mariah Pointer. “So many people are on it, it shuts down all the time.”
When that happens, she uses the Wi-Fi emitting from the school bus that sits in front of her apartment complex, one of several parked around the community to fill the gaps.