A woman walking along Mandela Parkway on a Sunday afternoon. Credit: Pete Rosos

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With eight months of remote learning behind them, and an indefinite stretch ahead, students in Oakland are eager to connect with each other in ways that don’t revolve around academics. Burnout, isolation, and other mental health crises brought on by the pandemic have led some students, teachers, and school leaders to incorporate mental health exercises into their school day. 

Monica Vu, an English teacher at Skyline High School, started a “self-care class” last fall, partly in jest, she said. Her school, along with some other Oakland high schools, had added an enrichment or advisory period for students to check in with teachers and have extra time to finish up assignments. 

“I was a little taken aback that we were requiring kids to stay on for an additional hour of Zoom for a class they weren’t going to get graded in,” Vu said. “Zoom fatigue is real, and kids get so tired of staring at their screens.”

Inspired by Audre Lorde, a womanist who wrote about self-care as an act of self-preservation, Vu decided to turn the advisory period into an hour of self-care for her students. At the start of every class, she asked her students what the best use of the hour would be for them to rest and recharge. Early in the quarter, Vu suggested basic activities like brushing teeth or taking a shower, but students soon started coming up with their own self-care activities, like taking a nap, playing guitar, painting, reading, or journaling. Then, Vu would tell them all to log off and actually go do whatever they had talked about.

As the class went on, more people started to hear about it, and even some teachers began joining the sessions, she said. 

“It’s cool when adults show up to the space because they’re also modeling to the students that it’s okay to take this time for ourselves,” Vu said. On the final day of class last quarter, students spent time talking about how they’d keep up their self-care activities on their own.

Vu, who isn’t hosting the class this quarter, said that when she teaches it again next quarter, she wants to incorporate more group activities that students can do together for the hour, like adult coloring books, to help with stress relief. 

At Latitude 37.8 High School in the Fruitvale, principal Lillian Hsu said one way the school has been helping students avoid isolation is by holding socially distanced outdoor activities, like camping or mountain biking. This weekend, if the weather clears, they plan to go on a socially distant hike, Hsu said. 

The school also surveyed students and families at the start of the year and midway through, about their feelings on the pandemic and their lives. 

“Coming into this year, there was a lot of fear about what was happening both nationally and globally, and wondering when the pandemic would end,” Hsu said. “Going into the second semester, wanting to be connected to other human beings, wanting to have things to look forward to and be creative were some of the things that were really coming up.”

Families wanted more opportunities for their students to be physically active, said Hsu. So this week, the school is launching a running challenge for students, teachers, and staff to collectively run, walk, or bike 2,021 miles in 2021.  

The school, which serves about 150 students in 9th, 10th, and 11th grades, also has an advisory period where small groups of students meet with a teacher or staff member virtually each day. Sometimes the advisory sessions are just to check in, and they’ve also done things like make pizza together or carve pumpkins. 

The school has also been partnering with Girls Leadership, an Oakland-based organization, to train students and staff. Twice a week, the advisory sessions include lessons helping students with their social and emotional development, Hsu said. Students learn to identify and name the feelings they’re experiencing, and some sessions touch on identity and culture. This semester, they’ve talked more about advocacy and student voice. 

“I think what kids crave the most is more opportunities to safely connect in person. I think they know that they feel deeply cared for by the adults, but it doesn’t necessarily replace just being able to see each other.”

Oakland students surveying their peers

A group of students interning with the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency this year set out to survey their peers on their mental health and how it has been impacted by the pandemic. The detailed questionnaire they developed asks high schoolers to describe what their stressors are, what coping mechanisms they use, and what support they receive from their schools. 

Georgia Wallace, a sophomore at Oakland Technical High School who is part of the internship group, said the topic interested her because although mental health has always been discussed in her family, she knows that isn’t the case for others her age. 

“I see how much people around me struggle,” she said. “Obviously, being a teenager is always going to be hard, but specifically what we’re living through right now is really difficult, not only to wrap our heads around, but to work through in a healthy way.”

With more than 300 survey responses so far from high schoolers across the city, the group has been able to draw some troubling conclusions: About a quarter of the students said they wouldn’t talk to anyone if they were struggling with their mental health (as opposed to a friend, parent, or school counselor), and nearly four in 10 said they have trouble concentrating on classwork and homework. The biggest stressors students reported were general anxiety about COVID-19, and the isolation of being at home all the time.  

Wallace, 15, said one reason teens may not know who to talk to about mental health struggles is that adults don’t always take young people seriously and can be dismissive of their feelings, especially during a time when everyone is feeling stressed out by the pandemic, she said.

“Mental health is already not talked about. And then when it comes to teenagers, it’s kind of like, our feelings are fake or something,” Wallace said. “The severity of the situation is not felt by people who are not in online schooling.”

Distance learning has been a major source of anxiety for students, as they adjust to a new style of teaching, new schedules, and a new school/life balance, while not being able to meet up with friends or teachers in person. 

Yazlyn Cuevas, another member of the internship group and a junior at Oakland Tech, said she’s been struggling with her workload and finding healthy ways to deal with the stress. Marya Al-Fahd, a student at Met West High School, said her interest in working on the project came from realizing her mental health had spiraled six months into distance learning. 

During a normal semester, high school students take seven or eight classes per semester. But during distance learning, they’ve had three or four classes per “mini-mester,” or quarter. That means they’re expected to learn a semester’s worth of knowledge on those topics in half the time, and do it with less face to face interaction with teachers and peers. 

Some students, like Wallace, fear that the  depth and quality of education they’re receiving has gone down with distance learning. Instead of going to her English class five times a week for an hour as she normally would, Wallace said she has two to three hours a week total with her English teacher, for only half of a semester. 

There is currently no timeline for resuming in-person instruction at OUSD schools. But a return to the classroom may not ease the mental toll on all students right away, since OUSD’s reopening plan prioritizes bringing younger students back before middle and high schoolers. And a return to school buildings could compound the stress students are feeling, if they’re afraid they could catch coronavirus or spread it to their family, Wallace said.

Cuevas added that if her peers don’t know where to turn to now while their mental health is suffering, they will be just as uninformed when they return to in-person classes, unless other things change. 

“OUSD schools are so permanently underfunded. And I think it’s really hard for them to find the time and resources to actively teach students about mental health and how to take care of themselves,” said Mia Martin, a junior at UC Santa Barbara who graduated from Oakland Tech and is also part of the internship group. “The resources on campus just don’t get enough utilization from students who don’t realize that they’re there.”

Four youth health clinics, which offer free mental health counseling to Oakland students, have remained open during the pandemic, even though schools are closed. 

The student intern group at the health agency is considering building a website for teens with a list of resources and healthy coping tips such as drinking water, exercising, or going for a walk. They’re also thinking about hosting Zoom calls to provide a safe space where young people can talk to each other about what they’re feeling. 

Supporting mental health with policy

Jessica Ramos, a senior at Skyline High School, works two jobs while balancing her college applications and school work. She’s also a student director on OUSD’s board of education, where she represents students in the school district. She hears from her peers all the time about how burnt out they are, and how they need more support. 

“Seniors just want to make it to the finish line and graduate already,” she said. “Freshmen, sophomores, and juniors are feeling drained.”

On top of distance learning and the pandemic, high schoolers are also grappling with current events, systemic racism, climate change, and national political upheaval. Many students also have jobs to support their families that may have suffered financial blows during the pandemic.

For Ramos, stress is something she’s still learning to cope with in healthy ways. She recently deleted TikTok, the video social network, after realizing she was spending hours a day on the app. 

“I deleted it to make sure to go outside, get some fresh air, and take my dog for walks,” Ramos said. 

Ramos has been working with the District 2 school board director, Aimee Eng, to bring forward a resolution that would address some student concerns surrounding distance learning. Part of the resolution, which they plan to introduce next month, would allow juniors and seniors who have become disconnected from remote learning this year to recover lost academic credits, Eng said. 

It would also prioritize funds in the district’s budget for additional mental health support for students. The specific supports haven’t been identified yet, Eng said, noting that the money would likely be one-time funding. Ramos also wants to see the school district partner with local organizations to provide mentoring or counseling to high schoolers in the afternoons and evenings, since remote learning school days are over by early afternoon.

But COVID-19 didn’t create mental health issues in students, said Eng, it just exacerbated them. The tricky part, she said, will be figuring out ways to leverage one-time funds into ongoing mental health services for students. 

“It’s imperative for schools to play a role in helping to address these challenges and support our young folks during these challenging times,” Eng said. “We’re really going to have to continue to rethink how we are engaging our youth and young folks in their learning.”

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Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.