The global COVID-19 pandemic forced most students into a mostly remote learning experience in March of 2020. Now that COVID vaccines are available, most students have returned to a fully in-person learning environment, but students are still adapting to the abrupt change.
While both teachers and students are excited to return to a sense of normalcy, fear and anxieties from past experiences and the resurgence of the new Delta variant still exist. Students, teachers, and the community are left wondering if the measures being taken at Akins are enough to maintain the safety of students and the community at large.
What actions has the school taken?
One action taken by the school district and Akins is requiring all students and staff to wear masks while indoors. AVID teacher Teresa Grumbles said the mask mandate has helped her feel safer inside classrooms.
“I think the mask mandate has helped quite a bit. And that students are doing really great with wearing their masks,” she said. “I know it’s difficult to wear masks all day long, but I think that our students are doing a really great job with that. And I think the admin and teachers are also doing a great job, reminding kids that the mask is down underneath the nose to fix it.”
She said she also appreciates how the school provides extra safety resources such as hand sanitizers, wipes, and extra masks in every classroom.
However, some students have expressed concern that guidelines the school district has made are rather loose and rarely enforced. Social distancing guidelines appear to not be consistent in all classrooms, which are often overcrowded.
Sometimes, there are more than 40 students packed into one classroom, making social distancing of three or more feet almost impossible.
And even though the district requires students who are COVID positive to quarantine for a 10 to 14-day period and have a negative COVID-19 test before returning to school, the situation still greatly affects students’ mental health. Sophomore Adam Garzia said, there are too many people in classrooms.
“My mom’s noticed that my anxiety has gotten a lot worse,” he said.
Mental health is an important factor that people often fail to give the proper amount of attention.
It’s not only a matter of keeping everyone physically safe but mentally as well. Students are excited to be back and play a more active role in the school’s community, but in-person learning can produce anxiety and fear, thus escalating the turmoil students have experienced in recent years.
Meg Kozel, a campus-based licensed social worker who runs the Student Support Services program at Akins, Margaret Kozel, said that for students and staff, there was a “gray cloud over everything.”
“I heard (English teacher Ryan) Thomas recently described last year as demoralizing. And I think that is just a really good word. I read another article that talked about how we lost so much of the things that we actually liked about school and can only do the things we don’t like.
We lost our social connection, and face-to-face instruction, and for those of us who are visual learners, even though we can see it on the screen, it’s just a whole different experience,” she said.
What are the academic impacts?
Such clouds haven’t yet fully cleared, and students still report feeling drained and tired, thus risking their performance and scores at school.
The STAAR test scores from 2021 demonstrate that 43% of students met the required passing grade level for the reading section compared to the 47% of 2019, and only 35% of the students achieved a passing score for the math section compared to the 50% of 2019.
For some, this shows that students are transitioning to, as Kozel calls it, “a new normal” with a learning loss from last year.
Principal Tina Salazar said students and parents have been afraid.
“How do you focus on a test when you’re worried about life and death?” she said. “I feel like while student education is very important when you’re talking about your child’s life, that takes precedence over anything.”
Some have said that they believe that school might never get back to the same environment that existed before the pandemic. However, Salazar said that “the majority of the students are doing better academically so far in comparison to last year.”
There is no question that students have better access to learning resources while attending in-person classes.
The issue is ensuring that the proper precautions are being taken and accurately managed to prevent students from being forced back to virtual classes if COVID spread continues on campus.
As of the week of Oct. 4, Akins has reported the most positive COVID-19 cases of all the Austin ISD high schools with 51, based on numbers posted on the district’s public COVID-19 dashboard.
However, Akins also has the second-largest student enrollments in the district, and this number of cases is similar compared to other high school campuses of similar sizes in the area.
Some people have expressed concern that COVID cases are not being reported and thus not counted on the district’s public dashboards. They said that they fear that the undercount in cases could create an illusion of safety, making it easier to ignore the red flags.
Salazar said she is in charge of COVID tracking at Akins.
“Contact tracing is hard, and a lot of my time is spent doing that,” she said.
The district is not currently dedicating a lot of staff to help with contact tracing, which could contribute to undercounts in the number of positive cases.
Areas of Concern
Current trouble spots for the campus when it comes to ensuring safety from COVID-19, are the eating areas and the bathrooms.
The administration has limited the seating inside the cafeteria to improve social distancing during lunch periods, and moved some of the cafeteria tables outside under the awnings. However, there are still not enough tables and outdoor seating available to accommodate all students, making lunchtime a far from comfortable experience for many students.
Furthermore, bathrooms are constantly running out of soap due to the vandalism that has occured recently inspired by viral TikTok trends. Soap dispensers have been ripped off the walls and have not been replaced in many bathrooms, making handwashing on campus a difficult task for many students.
And in the girls’ restrooms, personal feminine hygiene items have been thrown on the floor.
Both examples have made bathrooms unsafe and unsanitary for students. They have also hinted at possible mental health problems for students who seem to be acting out for social media attention instead of demonstrating care and respect for their fellow students and the school in general.
Staff has also expressed their concerns about the emotional well-being of students.
“Only the seniors have been here one whole complete year. Juniors, sophomores, and freshmen haven’t been here long enough,” Salazar said.
She said that she worries that students’ lack of time on campus and in-person learning environments may have contributed to their lack of emotional maturity.
“So because of that, I feel like we’re seeing a lot of issues, things that weren’t squashed and people doing things that we see in middle schools,” she said.
It remains to be seen if the return to campus will help students to learn the social and emotional skills necessary to function in a high school environment.
However, as Margaret Kozel shared, “I think we really have to be kind to ourselves, and remember that pre-COVID baseline for mental health is going to be changed.
We’re all going to be a little bit more anxious, we all have a little bit more fear. We’ve all experienced this huge trauma and some much worse than others.”
The data that can be found might raise concerns, nonetheless, it is important everyone is aware of what they are dealing with.
Overall, it is very clear that everyone is experiencing the return back to school in many different ways. Some find it harder to socialize after being isolated for so long. They feel they need to regain those social skills.
Others have found that having contact with people again has actually helped them with their anxiety, yet while still feeling resentful for the lost opportunities to make social connections last year.
Most students share how having to come in person to school has helped them with developing discipline in turning in work on time, asking for help, and participating more in class.
Meanwhile, other students have reported having a hard time waking up for school, focusing during lectures without luxuries at home, or just generally finding the school environment distracting.
Lastly, as much as we worry about preventing COVID-19 cases, we can’t leave aside how students feel about being back.
There is the worry of the risks, that the mask mandate is not properly enforced, or that classrooms and common areas are overcrowded, causing students to feel unsafe and anxious. anxiety.
But so far many students have reported feeling that their social interactions and connections have only improved this year.
“We owe it to ourselves and to our community, to just extend a little more grace, respect, kindness, and compassion in any way that we can if we really want to heal and get back to normal,” Kozel said.
Xander Musgrave contributed to the story.
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