The Indiana college goes a step additional to assist weak kids with the climate pandemic life-style
After COVID-19 forced Olivia Gouldings Indiana Middle School to switch back to distance learning late last year, the math teacher lost touch with many of her students. So she and some colleagues had a plan: to visit you under the guise of giving Christmas presents.
One day in December they set off with maps and candy canes and came to the homes of every eighth grader at Sarah Scott Middle School in Terre Haute, a town of more than 60,000 near the Illinois border, home to both Indiana State University as well as the federal death row are located. They saw firsthand how these children, many of whom lived in poverty and in dysfunctional families, coped with the disruption of the pandemic in their academic and social routines.
“They just have a better understanding of where they’re from and what challenges they’re really facing,” said Goulding. “If you look at that electronic graduate book and Sally Lou didn’t submit anything, remember again, ‘Oh yeah, Sally Lou was home alone looking after three younger siblings when I stopped by and I saw them Johnny helped him with his math, and she helped this one with something else. ‘”
The school’s experience provides a glimpse into the difficulties millions of families across the country have faced since last March, and exemplifies why education isn’t the only reason many Americans want schools to reopen completely. Schools like Sarah Scott help keep their communities together by providing full support to households that have gotten much tougher during the pandemic.
“Many of our students have emotional problems,” said Sarah Scott’s principal, Scotia Brown. “They are stressed because they are lagging behind in their work. Or they are stressed because of the conditions in which they live at home.”
Even before the coronavirus hit, Sarah Scott’s children faced significant obstacles that exacerbated normal social challenges and the soaring hormones of middle school. They live in Vigo County, where child poverty and child neglect are highest. Almost 90% of students qualified for free or discounted lunches. Some have had to shower and change at school, which has a pantry that also sells clothing and hygiene products.
Things got tougher for students when COVID-19 messed up Sarah Scott’s normal class schedule. At first the school was completely remote, then at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year it was partially looked after personally. When COVID-19 rose in October, Sarah Scott went into the distance again because not enough replacement teachers could be used to quarantine the staff. Since January the students have been spending part of each week in the school building. A full opening is not planned until the beginning of March.
The children were given laptops that they could use at home. However, internet access can be problematic.
“The internet was the worst,” said Samantha Riley, mother of seventh grader Mariah Pointer. “There are so many people around that it shuts down all the time.”
In this case, she uses the WiFi on the school bus in front of her apartment complex, one of several parked in the community, to fill in the gaps.
Even when the internet works, keeping kids at home at work is not easy. Heather Raley said she often cries from the stress of getting her eighth grade daughter to get involved online. “It just seems like we always worry about it,” said Raley. “It’s just a bigger fight to get the job done.”
Worsening of loads
As in many other communities, students are falling behind academically. Some do not do any of their e-learning activities. Sarah Scott’s reports to child protection services of neglect of education – when carers fail to teach their children face-to-face or distance learning – have more than tripled this school year.
Brown said she also worries about physical neglect and abuse, which is harder to spot when interacting with students remotely. “If you are in an abusive home and have to be there five days a week because of distance learning, you are even more in that environment,” she said.
Spending more time at home can also mean going without necessities, including eating.
The school offers free breakfast and lunch for personal students and takeaway lunches on remote days. Sometimes the headmaster delivers boxes of groceries to students’ homes. The school recently secured a microwave for a family and an inflatable mattress for a student who shared a bed with his grandmother.
For some children, the stress of the pandemic has exacerbated emotional problems and mental illness. Recently, a former Sarah Scott student who had moved out of the state logged into her former teacher’s virtual class to say she was planning to commit suicide. The school contacted the police who looked after her. Referrals for suicide students have increased four-fold, Brown said.
School social worker Nichelle Campbell-Miller said it had been difficult to counsel children online or via text message.
“It’s just about building relationships and being personal and making you crazy or hugging you and saying, ‘Hey, what’s up?'” She said, using a term for various greetings like punching or punching elaborate handshakes. “That’s why it’s extremely difficult for me to be online, because you can’t really make out the tone of your student. When I talk to you in person, I can read your body language and judge where you are.”
Right now, she said, the psychological well-being of her middle school students is even more important than education.
Facing multiple challenges
Many students, like eighth grader Trea Johnson, face challenges on both fronts. Trea switched to Sarah Scott two days before the end of face-to-face study.
“We have problems with school anyway,” said his mother, Kathy Poff. “Then when this pandemic came, it just knocked our feet out from under us.”
His grades fell. He was starting to hate school, said Poff. He did not attend his daily video meetings with his teachers. His mother struggled with him to do his online chores.
“I’m usually pretty bored,” said Trea, whose long, straight hair sometimes falls over his eyes.
Poff found a therapist with whom he meets once a week. She said his mood and academic productivity had improved. He wants to become a computer programmer and has been programming in his spare time lately. She has also brought his computer into her bedroom for better monitoring and has started paying him for his schoolwork.
“I can’t even imagine what it would be like if a 13-year-old went through this pandemic,” said Poff, 51, a single mother. “They’re going through changes anyway, adapting to the youth and finding out who they are, and they don’t even have a social group to find out.”
“The Reality of Life”
Goulding, the math teacher, said she was glad she and her staff were able to provide stability and continuity during this difficult time. For example, one night she received a call from a pregnant boy’s grandmother who said she was in poor health and was raising him alone. The next day, the headmaster and social worker picked him up and drove him to school.
Even so, Goulding complained that he hadn’t seen her most vulnerable students on the days they were away.
“How do I check my kids? How do I make sure they are eating? How do I make sure they are safe?”
“They no longer think about, ‘How are you doing with your polynomials?’ You think about the reality of life. “