Listen and Learn From Vashon’s Youth

Here’s to the day that full joy returns and the pandemic finally recedes.

  • Thursday, March 4, 2021 5:33pm
  • Opinion

As online school nears the one year-mark on Vashon, there is sudden movement — hybrid education has begun to roll out for Chautauqua Elementary School students.

Nothing is yet “back to normal” at the school — returning students are still masked, still distant, and still, at least partially, learning online.

And sadly, Washington is still one of only 22 states that have not prioritized the vaccination of school staff — an extremely disappointing position for our governor to take, given that the education of our children should surely be considered as one of the most essential needs of Washingtonians.

Like hospitals, schools are vitally important to protect the fabric of our communities, and every possible protection — including vaccinations — should be given to those who work in these settings. Not only the physical health but also the mental health of our communities, depend on it.

A year into the pandemic, the mental health stresses for youth are becoming achingly evident.

At the Feb. 11 Vashon School District board meeting, members and the public heard presentations not only from student board representatives but also VISD counseling staff members Tara Vanselow, Paul Peretti, Yvette Butler, Kailey Pearce and Kristina Miller.

Student representative Mead Gill outlined how the VHS newspaper, The Riptide, was now working on an important story following its own mental health survey of students in the school.

Ella Yarkin, also a student representative, spoke about the return of competitive sports to the high school, saying what a positive difference it had made to student-athletes to have the ability to come together again to practice and compete.

Then the counselors delivered a power-point presentation that was equal parts anguish and hope, detailing their role as front-line responders to student mental health concerns.

Grades at the school were slipping, they said, with the number of D and F grades rising sharply. Disturbingly, 9th graders — at only the starting line of their high school careers — were falling behind the fastest, and students of color and those with IEPs were also disproportionally identified as those now failing classes.

More than 100 McMurray Middle School students have been identified as needing intervention-level support, and during the pandemic, the school had also been alerted to 33 cases of suicide ideation by students in this age range, prompting special screenings of those youth.

Even when in-person school begins again, the counselors said, students would still be at risk.

“Their brains feel like they’ve been shut off,” one counselor said. “They can’t focus anymore, their sleep is disrupted … we need to recognize in the district that learning won’t be able to happen at the pace it did when they left us.”

Even the act of returning to the classroom, after so much isolation, will cause anxiety for some.

At the same time, though, VHS counselor Tara Vanselow spoke passionately about the resiliency of many students in the district.

“Kids are getting through and families are figuring it out, but that doesn’t mean it is easy,” she said, saying that people learn to be resilient by going through hard things and coming out on the other side.

She praised McMurray Middle School’s “Sources of Strength” program (see story page 1, and youth commentary on these pages) and said she had asked students, in a recent survey, to describe new things they were learning now.

The list of replies was as long and varied, she said. Students reported that they were doing everything from “reading actual books” to knitting, cooking, working out, learning musical instruments, and growing plants.

“Students are doing cool things,” she said. “They are learning themselves that these things help them. It’s not their parents or teachers telling them — they are figuring it out for themselves — there are still moments of joy to be had.”

Here’s to the day that full joy returns and the pandemic finally recedes. Until then, islanders, stay safe. Follow the example of youth and find new creative expressions of hope while you are waiting. Don’t ease up on pandemic precautions. Each of our actions matters enormously, and another spike in cases would be devastating.

We’ve got to get the kids back to school and do what so many other states are doing — vaccinating school staff.

Note: As this editorial when to press on Tuesday, President Joe Biden threw the full weight of the federal government behind a drive to vaccinate all teachers and childcare workers in the United States with at least one shot by the end of March, and said he would ask all governors to prioritize this push.

How’s that for fresh hope?

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