By Srishti Prabha
In the sprawling Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove, the Franklin High School campus is quiet except for the occasional goodbye from students leaving summer school. Jay Eddings, 15, stands alone against the school fence. It’s a hot day, the temperature climbs to 90 degrees, but Jay is waiting with his mask on. She does not greet or call any classmate.
When she speaks, she is deliberate, choosing her words carefully. “It was really stressful trying to navigate the school in general and trying to get to know myself with people,” Jay says. “It was also very difficult to catch up on schoolwork.”
Her father, Levi Eddings, says his daughter lost her mother, aunt, grandmother and brother before the pandemic. As a single parent, he searched for ways to help Jay’s academic decline during his freshman year of high school.
“She was very depressed and was skipping school,” he explains.
On the heels of these losses, the pandemic began and Jay entered distance learning. And just when she felt comfortable, she had to start her freshman year of high school in person. She says going back to class made her “quite anxious”.
Jay’s experience at Franklin is both universal and unique. Many students struggle with change, of course. But they also face their own challenges and adversaries as the pandemic continues.
The student body is the largest and most diverse in Elk Grove Unified, Northern California’s largest school district. According to available data for the 2021-22 year, transmission of COVID-19 at Franklin was above average compared to other schools in the Sacramento area.
During a normal school year, students of color overcome insurmountable odds. But last year they also endured COVID, mental wellness issues and the transition from remote learning to in-person learning. Like Jay, each had their own triggers that required individual attention.
“Each student who lived in their respective homes had a different experience,” said Chase Moore, a school psychologist with the Elk Grove Unified School District and part-time school psychologist at Franklin.
Dodging the virus, debating masks in class
Incoming senior Natalia Ramos sits alone on a bench, away from a crowd of students. She’s worried about COVID, she says. She lives in a mixed intergenerational household and does not want to bring him home.
She says she is acutely aware of the lasting health effects of COVID. “My mother worked in the healthcare system and I have elderly family members. Every day I hoped [that] one of my family members does not get COVID,” Ramos said.
Even with all the COVID protocols on campus, one in five Franklin students tested positive this past school year, with an average of 120 students exposed for every COVID-positive student.
“I had COVID [at school] and it was the first time. I was so sad,” said Dominique Hamilton, 16, after rushing out of Franklin’s gates at the end of the summer day. She laughed with three friends as they waited to be picked up.
This was not how Hamilton expected his summer to go. “It was the last two weeks of school, so I really couldn’t catch up. That’s why I’m here,” she said, adding that she was making the best of a bad situation.
In Franklin, mask mandates were enforced once during the school year, from Dec. 13 to Feb. 7, when COVID transmission peaked. The warrants quickly became a controversial topic among some of Hamilton’s peers in the class.
“A lot of people didn’t like wearing their masks, and…most of them were white students,” she said.
Ramos echoed Hamilton’s thoughts on the classroom masking debate. “There were a handful of people throughout my classes who did not want to wear a mask and would express [it]. Most of them were white,” she said, referring to the discomfort of being in class with anti-masking people.
Ramos wants school officials to take more precautions, like in the cafeteria, where large groups gather. “It’s a big hot spot with everyone eating and taking their masks off,” she said.
CapRadio visited the administration office on the Franklin campus, but staffers did not discuss school policies. A spokesperson for EGUSD also did not accept an interview but referred this reporter to COVID protocols on their official webpage.
Mental health check
For Ramos and Hamilton, negotiating exposures to COVID and disease, trying to learn through the disruptions and confronting the political discourse around masking was hard enough. And then there was the stress.
“With COVID, there’s a lot of mental stress having to focus on school when you know you’re in the middle of a pandemic with this virus all around you,” Ramos said.
With COVID, there’s a lot of mental stress having to focus on school when you know you’re in the middle of a pandemic with this virus all around you.
This challenge came as California’s already high prevalence of youth mental health incidences and inaccessibility to mental health services worsened between 2021 and 2022, according to the Mental Health Alliance. Sacramento County students advocated for increased access to mental health services on campus last year.
But even though Hamilton wanted to avoid COVID, she has two minds when it comes to online and in-person learning.
She feels her grades were better when she was learning remotely and preferred waking up later to go to class. Back in class, her grades plummeted, but she benefited from sociability and easy access to her teachers.
And after being isolated during the pandemic, she is still strategizing to increase social interactions. “They should have more activities for all levels. I think it will help everyone come out of their shell, make more friends and meet more people,” Hamilton said.
Getting used to the freedom of being on campus, new senior Kekoa Cano and his two friends use the gymnasium at Franklin High School for free during the summer. Kekoa has spent the majority of her high school career at home. Her mother, Tami Cano, stepped in as a class moderator for Kekoa and her siblings, taking on the added responsibility of supporting her children academically.
When he started his freshman year, he found his grades were improving in person. “I’m generally a hands-on learner, instead of a cold learner. I had friends to help me keep up,” he said.
However, Tami Cano noticed a few differences. “There was a lot of social and emotional stress,” she recalls.
She discovers that her son could see the learning in person through a rose-tinted lens. “As a parent, I honestly think Kekoa’s grades were better when [classes] were online,” she said.
After adjusting to rigorous standards at home, Kekoa Cano wants an adjusted learning style in the classroom. “More collaboration would be helpful,” he said.
From distance learning to in-person learning
The social and emotional well-being of students before and after the pandemic has been exacerbated by school instability. Black and Hispanic students have lost more ground in math than their white peers during the pandemic, according to research from Harvard University. Distance learning increased the achievement gap and in-person learning was recommended.
Yet, for students and parents, the transition to the classroom yielded variable outcomes that depended on pre-existing stressors.
Take a look at Jay Eddings: The pandemic impacted his personal and educational growth at a formative age. Her first year back to in-person learning was also her freshman year of high school — and she was starting at a disadvantage.
“She was very stressed after the death of four members of her family,” Levi Eddings said.
He enlisted a program outside of school to help him with his emotional and educational stress. “She’s very smart and dedicated to learning,” he said. “I know she can do it.”
Mathematics was a particularly difficult subject. Jay Eddings says the school should “provide additional study support”. She seeks academic support outside of the classroom because the standardized education system cannot adequately address her mental health.
Moore, who is the district councilor, says meeting the needs of students – educationally, emotionally and behaviorally – has been his top priority last year.
“Once you understand what the student has been through in their individual home, you align that experience they’ve had with their goals and with the goals of the school. It’s a fluid partnership creating appropriate expectations and goals,” Moore said.
Parents say Franklin High School teachers and administrators have done their best to bring students back into the school environment, but premeditating the social and emotional dynamics of high school students has always been a daunting task. After remote learning, schools and their classrooms need to move away from standardized models of academic achievement, parents say.
And the lasting impact of the pandemic on adolescents is multiple and additive: school and life are gradually exposing students and parents to irreplicable challenges. Jay Eddings has this idea:
“Don’t expect too much or too little. You can’t guess what’s gonna happen [or] what you are going to experience. All you can really do is try to improve your experience.