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Drained students say CPS should do more to help teens’ mental health, improve remote learning

While the district pushes to reopen schools, many students are asking where they can get support if returning to in-person learning isn’t for them.

Students share their personal experiences this school year in a virtual discussion hosted by student group “Students Strike Back.”
Students share their personal experiences this school year in a virtual discussion hosted by student group “Students Strike Back.”
Students Strike Back/Facebook

Reina Espino Torres, a student at Curie Metropolitan High School, is mentally and emotionally drained.

She sits in front of a computer up to eight hours each weekday for virtual classes and has homework she sometimes doesn’t understand, with little access to teachers. She also recently suffered personal loss — her uncle who raised her passed away of COVID-19.

“I was on the verge of giving up on school,” Reina said in a virtual student discussion this week about Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plans. “I was so gone to a depressed episode. And my teachers, they didn’t really know how to handle that. Even when I didn’t go to school for like two weeks, when I came back to school I had a load of homework, they didn’t know how to assist me, they didn’t know how to help me. They didn’t have any mental resources for me.”

Despite the school system’s push to bring students back to classrooms as a solution to educational and personal struggles during the pandemic, Reina said risking infection in a building with classmates and teachers wouldn’t help her, it will cause more anxiety.

While the district and the Chicago Teachers Union fight over how and when to reopen schools, many students are left asking the same question — where will they be able to get support if returning to in-person learning isn’t for them?

The first week of CPS’ initial wave of reopening earlier this month saw an average of 3,200 pre-Kindergarten and special education cluster students attend classrooms each day — about 19% of students in those programs and only half the number who initially opted in. About one-third of K-8 students opted in for the next wave — scheduled for Monday, pending CPS’ negotiations with the CTU. The district is working on a plan to bring high school students back but no date has been set.

Lux De La Garza, a sophomore at Solorio Academy High School, said leniency in grading and academic expectations would go a long way to helping students cope.

“Our students are still surviving a deadly pandemic,” they said. “It’s OK if they’re not performing to their very best. And we need to show compassion. I’m tired of acting like everything’s the same when it’s not.”

Virtual learning “doesn’t have to be a hard thing,” said Judai Smith, a Kenwood Academy High School student. CPS could help students by devoting resources to improving access and quality of remote learning and providing mental health support, she said, adding that those levels of support are what make students feel safe.

“I definitely am one of those students that’s falling behind or whatever, and I’m definitely depressed,” Judai said. “It’s insane that CPS didn’t do more to support students during these times. They’re just trying to send us back and risk our lives. My experience isn’t great. It’s draining and exhausting.”

“The school system shouldn’t have to only rely on students being in a classroom in front of a teacher. If it’s not adjustable, it’s not sustainable.”