Editor’s Note, Jan. 21,2021: Updates were made to the Rademachers’ vehicle type and son Liam’s academic improvement, as well as the installation dates on the plexiglass shields.
Editor’s Note: The school district has its regularly scheduled board meeting tonight at 5:30 p.m. During the superintendent’s update, Superintendent Carmen Ghysels will be discussing a date for reopening schools in the hybrid learning model. Due to COVID, the meeting is virtual. To submit public comment call (530) 582-2730 and record for up to three minutes on any item on the agenda, or email your comment to Lupita Vazquez, executive assistant, email@example.com. Click here to live stream the meeting. Click here to view the agenda.
Lisa Laliotis’ son Anthony was never a big fan of school, but he always turned in his assignments on time and made honor roll all through middle school. But when COVID-19 hit last spring and the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District moved to distance learning, Laliotis saw an immediate change in her son both emotionally and academically.
“You could tell he was disengaging,” she said. “He would get angry when we would try to follow up … It’s gone from being a minor issue to a major issue to us saying, ‘Is this worth our relationship with our child?’”
Almost a year into distance learning, Anthony, now a freshman at Truckee High, is still struggling. Laliotis says her goal for this year is simply for her son to pass his classes.
“Every other day is ‘I hate school, I don’t want to go, what is the purpose of it?’” Laliotis said of her son. “It’s fostered by a lack of interaction with teachers and no social-emotional personal contact with teachers, whereas before he would say, ‘Even though I don’t like school I really like my math or English teacher.’ There was something that kept him engaged.”
It was unimaginable last March when TTUSD abruptly closed after California went into lockdown that, 10 months later, the district would still be operating remotely. Except for one month this fall when students went back to school two days a week, schools have been in online learning since the pandemic began.
Now, one of the biggest consequences of distance learning has become glaringly apparent — many students are suffering. Laliotis is joined by other parents who similarly tell stories of formerly high-achieving students whose motivation and grades have slipped as virtual school drags on and their child’s bedroom seems to permanently double as their classroom. The emotional support and physical outlet kids would normally receive from friends and sports has also dwindled due to the pandemic, compounding their frustration with distance learning. While TTUSD officials say they are doing everything they can to meet students’ emotional needs at this time, many parents say it’s time to get kids back in school before more damage is done.
Amy Vail is a mother of two teenagers and a clinical psychologist. She said that when schools closed in the spring, many parents thought their children would be fine, but now, almost a year later, it has become evident how much kids are struggling.
“It’s like they are carrying a heavy backpack without the ability to put it down,” Vail said. “The uncertainty is exhausting. It’s wearing them down and painful for all of us.”
Vail’s daughter, a freshman, is faring well academically but not as well socially. She was extremely active in sports, playing volleyball, soccer, basketball, track, and softball. All that came to a hard stop with the start of COVID last spring.
Vail says the main way many teenagers exhibit the hardships of distance learning is apathy. She is seeing this with her young clients, around 80% of whom are having a tough time with distance learning, including having difficulty paying attention in school and tracking assignments, as well as social isolation.
“People are just drained. Adults often work on having compassion for ourselves, but kids don’t get that concept until they are older,” she said. “This is where the apathy piece comes in — kids’ desire to do something to alleviate the stress. But now they are like, what’s the point? This leads to a downward spiral of ‘who cares, what I do doesn’t matter anyways.’”
Vail said her youth client caseload increased by around 60% with the onset of the pandemic. Many parents don’t know how to handle their children’s increasing moodiness and find it more and more difficult to set and enforce healthy boundaries.
“Before, most parents reached out because their kids were struggling but they didn’t know why, it was often pretty general,” she said. “Parents are now specifically saying this [distance learning] is the problem, their kids seem depressed … socially isolated and withdrawn.”
Sunny Rogers says the lack of in-person school and socializing is weighing heavy on her 12-year old daughter Stella Sickler, a seventh grader at North Tahoe School. She describes Stella sitting in her room in her pajamas in front of a screen from 9 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., working with a tutor virtually two days a week, and staying up late to socialize with friends on TikTok. Rogers doesn’t believe children her daughter’s age are equipped to handle the organizational skills needed for distance learning.
“Her grades have slipped a lot,” said Rogers, adding that one year ago Stella made honor roll. “I have to sit with her every night to make sure she is up-to-date on all of her assignments … They expect 12-year-olds to operate like college students, but they don’t have the tools to self-organize, structure their schedule, manage seven hours of screen time, and two hours of homework.”
And then there is the difficulty of getting on the internet. Rogers lives along the Truckee River corridor near Squaw Valley where internet service was already challenging before COVID, but now it’s a nightmare.
“It works if the weather is stable and there are not a lot of people in town,” said Rogers, who resorted to driving Stella to cafes to pick up a good signal and finally paid $1,000 for a cellular booster. “It resulted in a sea of anxiety — I can’t log on, she was crying a lot. She is so used to having a system that worked for her, it was like a rug that got pulled out from under her.”
Many parents complain about the increased time spent on screens as a result of distance learning. Vail said the expanded time in front of a computer puts many kids in a bad mood, but parents tell her that when they try to get them off the screens, it puts them in a worse mood. Parents feel trapped.
“I have been saying for years to get kids off technology and get them outside,” said Vail, who lectures on the topic. “Then it was ‘get back in the house and get back on technology.'”
Rogers said that often when she walks into Stella’s room, she is chatting with friends on Google Meet or other apps rather than paying attention to class. But in these unique times, technology is often the only way that kids get to see their friends. Laliotis said her daughter Isla, a fifth grader at Truckee Elementary, has been allowed more time on FaceTime as a way to connect with her friends, which presents its own challenges. At one point, Truckee Elementary banned Google Chat for all fifth graders due to online bullying.
“It’s all they have, but we can’t supervise it,” she said. “But if she had no chat, no videos, it would be a worse situation here.”
If distance learning is difficult for middle school and high school students, it’s incredibly problematic for younger kids, who cannot navigate the technology on their own. Emily Rademacher has basically become her 8-year-old son’s full-time teacher.
“I have to be there every step of the way,” she said. “I have to almost re-read everything to him, I have to translate, simplify the concepts. They don’t have the back and forth where teachers can see the confusion in the kids’ faces, they don’t have those subtleties of communication.”
Rademacher, a real estate photographer, spends so much time helping her second grader, Liam Dettling, with school that she barely has time to work. At one point she set up a desk in the back of her car for her son so he could do schoolwork while she shot photos, but it didn’t work out well. Then she tried leaving Liam at home with her older son Damyn, an eighth grader at Alder Creek, but would come home to find Liam playing on his device.
“He has been acting out, been emotionally fragile, it’s almost like he has digressed,” said Rademacher of Liam, noting that they are both in therapy to try to deal with these issues. Liam’s schoolwork has improved thanks to help from his therapist and teacher.
Not all kids are struggling with distance learning. Amy Rosen’s son Xander, a junior at Sierra Continuation High School, is thriving. Without the distraction of other kids in the classroom, Rosen said that Xander, who has ADD, can better focus. She has seen his self-confidence rise as he does better in school. Yet her younger son Seth, a freshman at North Tahoe High whom she describes as a social butterfly, is suffering without the social aspect of in-person school.
Parents, seeing the toll that distance learning and no school sports are taking on their children, are beginning to take action. Earlier this month, two TTUSD parents started a petition called “Get the Kids Back in School.” Over 600 parents have signed the petition, which specifically sites the impact of distance learning on kids’ mental health.
“This full distance learning model is taking a significant mental health toll on children in our community. Parents are reporting that their children exhibit signs of depression, at times severe. We have safety measures in place to protect kids and staff from the virus. It is now time to put some focus on mental health,” the petition states.
On Jan. 15, around 50 parents and students participated in a rally outside Truckee High as part of Let Them Play CA, a statewide rally to urge the state to allow youth sports to return as soon as possible. The group’s Facebook page has grown to 40,000 members in a matter of weeks, and more than 130 high schools participated in the rally. Let Them Play CA is preparing to file a lawsuit against the state of California this week.
“A lot of damage is being done to kids not being in school or having sports,” said Doug Flynn, whose two kids play basketball and golf at Truckee High. “We are saying to the governors of California and Nevada to look at the research and data and make decisions, to figure out a way to play safely.”
Rieley Shanahan, a Truckee High senior and lacrosse player who was at the rally, said she is doing a lot worse in school this year.
“Sports is one of the only things where I can let go of everything,” she said. “Being cooped up in my house and not being able to be with my teammates and friends has backfired.”
Aaron Abraham, who organized the local Let Them Play rally, is on the board of the Truckee River United Football Club and coaches two girls soccer teams. Last spring, the club made the decision to continue with its season with health and safety modifications. Despite having over 220 athletes, the club did not see any evidence of transmission within club-sanctioned activities.
“As a society and community, my prayer is that our school district and state realize that the future and opportunity for these kids greatly outweighs the negative component of this deadly virus,” Abraham said at the event.
TTUSD closed all schools on Nov. 23 after operating in the hybrid model, where students go to school two days a week, for only a little more than three weeks. Hybrid learning was so short-lived due to a combination of factors that included a shortage of substitute teachers and staff members, a high number of active COVID cases within the district, insufficient access to timely virus testing, and reaching its capacity to conduct contact tracing.
TTUSD officials say they recognize the negative impact of closed schools on students. According to Executive Director of Student Services Jeff Santos, the district developed an ad hoc committee at the end of last school year to address the social-emotional needs of children and put together a list of resources on the district’s website for parents. Schools are offering enhanced social-emotional lessons several times a week to teach kids how to handle anxiety, resolve fears, manage emotions like stress, and communicate if they are struggling.
“A lot of it is opinion based, in some situations students are truly struggling, in intense cases the student already had pre-existing mental health needs, which are compounded by COVID,” Santos said. “It’s a mixed bag.”
The school district board is meeting today at 5:30 p.m. to decide when in-person learning can resume. Santos said that the district’s goal is to get students back in school as soon as possible, and to keep schools open for the remainder of the year.
“We will do everything we can to preserve in-person learning,” he said, “even if it means one school pivots back to distance learning, we would like to keep other schools open.”
For many parents, the school board’s decision cannot come soon enough.
“A lot of kids are wondering if life will ever go back to normal,” Vail said. “They are worrying about the wreckage of their future.”