Princeton High School students are more stressed than ever, and a plan to add more Zoom instruction time to their daily schedules would only make things worse. That was the message students at the high school gave to administrators and the school board at a public Zoom meeting last week that was attended by almost 1,000 people. The meeting lasted more than four hours and was cut off by the board at midnight.
Yash Roy, a student representative to the school board, said March and April plans for changes to the high school schedule that would add more Zoom time caused confusion, frustration, and chaos. Students wanted to have a voice when it came to the changes, but they did not before the changes were presented to them, he said. A survey of his fellow students shows that 85 percent are feeling overly stressed. “Adding instructional time is not going to help that,” Roy said, adding that students need more time to do homework.
Roy and other students asked the district not to make proposed changes to the high school schedule for April and instead to respect students and consult with them to create a better schedule.
After listening to students during the school board meeting, Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso asked student representatives to the school board to put together a group of students to meet with him to talk about issues students raised about stress and mental health. The day after the board meeting, Galasso sent an email out saying district officials decided to put instructional proposals on hold until they get more feedback from students, staff, and members of the community about how to better meet the needs of students during the next phases of hybrid learning.
During the school board meeting, student William Erickson told the board there was already a stress epidemic before the pandemic, with students often pulling all-nighters to complete homework. The pandemic exacerbated the stress, but with online learning, there are not many outlets to cope with the situation, he said. “Students are overly stressed and can not take in more information,” he said. “For me, at the end of four hours of Zoom, I just want to go out and take a break.”
Student Anlin Kopf said high school students have a large workload after school that includes hours of homework. Students often spend 15 hours a day on computer screens and only take breaks to eat or use the bathroom, she said. “Extending Zoom is a bad idea,” she said, adding that mental health is a big issue for students during the pandemic.
“The student body has been super confused. We genuinely don’t know what schedule to follow or which proposal to understand. From what I’ve seen, people are obviously frustrated,” student Matty Baglio said. “We’re not slacking off this year. We’re probably working harder than on a normal basis. If grades are dropping it’s because we are teenagers living in a global pandemic, not because of less instructional time.”
Student Isabel Sethi said students feel burned out after every school day, and adding more time to the schedule would only exacerbate Zoom fatigue.
“The amount of work every day is absurd,” student Sophia Miller said. “People don’t consider how long students spend on screens after school,” she said, noting that she could not recall the last time she read a book just for pleasure or wrote in her journal.
Student Livia Boulding said the proposed changes showed that the district was only giving lip service to mental health issues and that many students were angry.
Some students also noted that families are dealing with other stresses, like parents losing incomes. Some parents are working two jobs, and some students are working after school until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. to earn money to help their families. Adding more instruction time would make it even harder to get homework done. Student Oleg Brennan noted that a requirement that all students have their computer cameras on also can create awkward situations for some students, especially in situations where a family could be crowded into one room while the student is on Zoom.
Student Oliver Huang accused the board of “being more tone dead than Ted Cruz in a Texas winter storm” and said in addition to scheduling issues, other student concerns had been ignored, such concerns about forcing students to turn cameras on. “I’m sick of the board and administration sending emails that we’re all in this together. Some of you are very rich and don’t send your kids to the public school system,” he said. “Some of you have never actually had students in the school district. You don’t have students in the public schools right now to understand what they are going through.”
More than three dozen students and teachers spoke during the board meeting, echoing many of the comments about Zoom fatigue and mental health issues. Student William Murray criticized some board members and administrators for looking at their phones or appearing distracted while students were talking.
Teacher Malachi Wood told the board different iterations of the new schedule were presented over a 48 hour period last week, and not everyone had input. He said the proposed schedule would cause harm, especially to vulnerable students from lower-income households. “The extended schedule will be an equity disaster,” Wood said. “It will extend the equity gap at Princeton High School…Extending class does not fix the problem. It exacerbates it. Some students are home taking care of siblings. It’s not a choice, it’s a matter of economic survival for the family. The schedule does not respect this. Vulnerable students need more time for individual support. The extended schedule takes time away in the afternoon when more privileged students are able to get help from partners and tutors. Vulnerable students rely on teachers. The new schedule takes away teacher time to meet with students one on one.” Wood also noted that some students are working full-time jobs because jobs have been lost in the household due to the pandemic, and rent is owed.
Teacher Elizabeth Taylor said extending the school day impacts professional development and opportunities for collaboration. Teachers would lose time they currently use to talk with each other and brainstorm about ways to make virtual instruction meaningful.
Some teachers and parents also questioned whether a proposal to have high school students eat outside in tents was a safe choice, and said students struggle to social distance when they are with their peers at school.
A few parents of elementary school students also spoke during the meeting, calling on the district to bring back full-time in-person instruction for their children. Parent Helen Rose, a pediatrician, said there is some risk of transmitting the virus at school, but the risk is reasonable and small. The risk for depression and other issues is greater, she said.
Cara Weiss said social distancing of six feet is no more effective for kids than three feet. She said it is ridiculous that high school students would be able to have lunch together but not elementary students. “If the district does not act soon, we may have a lost generation,” she said. “It will take years to undo the damage districts have caused by restricting K-5 education.”
Galasso said in his email to parents the day after the school board meeting that the district would be hosting several opportunities for members of the community to discuss the needs of students at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels beginning this week.
“At last night’s Board of Education meeting, we heard from a large number of students, parents, and teachers who said the school district’s plans announced yesterday to extend instructional time and expand in-person learning were ill-considered in light of the demands already placed on students and teachers by hybrid instruction, ” Galasso wrote. “We also heard that students are experiencing not only Zoom fatigue but real emotional distress attributable to the disruptions in their lives caused by the prolonged pandemic crisis. Accordingly, we have decided to put a hold on any specific instructional proposals while we seek further advice from students, staff, and members of our community about how we can better meet the needs of our students during the next phases of hybrid learning.”