Even when the internet works, though, keeping kids on task at home isn’t easy. Heather Raley said she often cries from the stress of trying to make her eighth grade daughter engage online. “It just seems like we’re always butting heads over this,” Raley said. “It’s just a bigger battle getting the work done.”
As in many other communities, students are falling behind academically. Some don’t do any of their e-learning activities. Sarah Scott’s reports to child protective services for educational neglect — when caregivers aren’t getting their children to either in-person or remote classes — have more than tripled this school year.
Brown said she also worries about physical neglect and abuse, which is harder to detect when interacting with students remotely. “If you’re in an abusive home and you have to be there five days out of the week because you’re doing remote learning, you’re in that environment even more,” she said.
More time at home can also mean doing without necessities, including food.
The school helps by offering free breakfasts and lunches for in-person students and to-go lunches on remote days. Sometimes, the principal delivers boxes of groceries to students’ homes. The school recently secured a microwave for one family and an inflatable mattress for a student who’d been sharing a bed with his grandmother.
For some kids, the stress of the pandemic has worsened emotional problems and mental illness. Recently, a former Sarah Scott student who had moved out of state logged into her former teacher’s virtual class to say she planned to kill herself. The school contacted police, who checked on her. Referrals for suicidal students are up fourfold, Brown said.
School social worker Nichelle Campbell-Miller said it’s been tough counseling kids online or through text messages.
“I am all about building relationships and being in person and being able to dap you up or give you a hug and be like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’” she said, using a term for various greetings like fist bumps or elaborate handshakes. “So being online is extremely difficult for me, because you can’t really tell the tone of your student. When I’m talking to you in person, I can read your body language and I can gauge where you’re at.”
Right now, she said, the psychological well-being of her middle schoolers is even more important than education.
Many students, such as eighth grader Trea Johnson, come up against challenges on both fronts. Trea transferred to Sarah Scott two days before COVID ended in-person learning.