This story was written by Regina Kibezi as part of the Kalamazoo Voices of Youth Program. The photo illustration is by Adam Ghonimy of the Voices of Youth Program. The Voices of Youth program is a collaboration between Southwest Michigan Second Wave and KYD Network, underwritten by the Stryker Johnston Foundation.
Javon Harris sits at his desk and logs into a video chat with his teacher for his weekly social emotional learning check-in. From the screen, his teacher runs through the usual prompts.
"How are you feeling mentally?"
"On a scale of one to 10, how are you feeling?”
“Remember to take breaks.”
A cartoon video of a colorful monster pops up to explain signs of depression. The teacher asks questions about the video and the same two people speak.
Harris, a junior at Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, was invited to these weekly check-ins for the entire 2020-21 school year while Kalamazoo Public Schools continued a virtual curriculum. It didn't take long for Harris and his classmates to start dropping off and ignoring these calls.
"It wasn't really personal and it didn't apply to everyone, so it was redundant,” Harris says. “It was bland. It was like a seasonless food.”
A virtual school year proved difficult for both teachers and students. While teachers tried to connect, some students said they felt isolated at home. Students and teachers often had different ideas to make the school year feel normal.
Kalamazoo Public Schools issued a stakeholder survey among parents, teachers, and staff ahead of the third trimester for the 2021 school year. The survey found 53% of parents and 83% of teaching staff said they wanted to remain virtual.
Students. Harris says, found virtual learning was a one-size-fits-all solution that didn’t take into account each student’s home circumstances.
At times, Harris felt like he was compared to other students and felt his success didn’t match theirs, despite having different obstacles.
“When they generalize and they use everything, thinking it works for everyone, it made the students that need that little extra help and a little extra boost feel like they didn't matter,” he said. “(They’d say) ‘It works for everyone. Why isn't it working for you?’ And then you were just getting left behind because they didn't have extra time to spend with you.”
Harris described the lack of social interaction as “crippling” to his mental health and his academics.
“It was much harder because you were sitting behind the screen at home alone,” he said. “Not everyone has a strong support system when it comes to school, so it was harder for them to really stay accountable for themselves because they weren't. They needed someone to be accountable for them.”
Harris started his high school career as an A and B student, but virtual school left him feeling disconnected and lonely to the point where he stopped attending online classes. He ended the school year passing only two classes. He started his junior year at a sophomore status due to lost credits.
He loaded his schedule with extra courses and summer school to pull himself out of the hole and get himself back on track to apply for college. Harris said he became persistent in emailing for help from teachers and counselors.
In-person classes resume
Kalamazoo students were back in classrooms for the 2021-22 school year.
Franklin Sallis, a health and physical education teacher at Loy Norrix, has noticed the mental shift of students. The pandemic put even more emphasis on social emotional learning, an evolution Sallis said he’s seen since he graduated high school in 2004.
“When I was in school, we didn’t put an emphasis on stress, depression, and suicide like we do today,” he said. “There’s more of a sense of urgency because of what people are dealing with.”
Breaks in the school day can be an effective tool for mental health, Sallis said. He takes his class outside for 15 minutes and brings out footballs or just lets students walk around.
Part of his mental health curriculum includes guest speakers from Kalamazoo’s crisis center Gryphon Place. Sallis understands that four days of talking about stress, depression, and suicide prevention can feel heavy on students. On the last day of the course, he offers students a chance to vote on a Friday activity to give them a mental break.
The key to creating a safe classroom is to take an individualized approach with students’ mental health, he said.
“There's always going to be the people that don't necessarily cope with stress the way others do,” Sallis said.
The state of Michigan is aware that this generation of students will have greater mental health needs after the pandemic uprooted their lives at such a critical time.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed $361 million for school-based mental health services. This money would go to hiring mental health professionals and opening 40 new clinics across the state for students.
“There's always room for improvement in regards to mental health,” Sallis said. “It’s one of the essential health skills. It’s something that is always learned and the learning never really stops.”
Regina Kibezi is a rising sophomore at Loy Norrix High School. She was a participant in the 2022 Voices of Youth Kalamazoo program that took place in April and May