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When some high school students return to in-person classes at the Margarita Muñiz Academy in Jamaica Plain later this fall, Alejandra De La Cruz won’t be among them.
De La Cruz, a senior, lives with her 83-year-old grandmother and father, both of whom had cancer. Her father also struggles with a heart condition. Her sister, who lives in Chelsea, was hospitalized with the coronavirus in the spring and has since recovered, she said.
“[Learning remotely is] going to be really difficult, but I’m willing to do it because I’m not going to put my grandmother and my dad’s health at risk,” said De La Cruz, whose Hyde Park neighborhood was hit hard by the virus.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of returning students across the Boston area bear deep psychological wounds from firsthand experience with the pandemic: They’ve gotten sick themselves, they’ve watched family members suffer and die; or they live in communities with high cases of COVID-19.
These children are likely to be struggling with chronic stress, grief, anxiety, and depression, state education officials warned this summer in communications shared with principals and superintendents. Also, some students will be suffering from secondary afflictions related to the pandemic, including social isolation, a weakened economy, and racial trauma. At the outset of an extraordinarily difficult year, schools are trying to help them cope — a challenge exponentially complicated by the fact that many of these students are learning remotely.
"We are not set up as an online school. We are set up so we are able to see our students and look at their faces to see what is going on,'' said Geoffrey Walker, head of school at Fenway High School in Boston. “COVID complicated that.”
Boston’s school district has not tracked the number of students who have had the virus themselves or had an immediate family member affected. But children ages 10 to 19 make up 5 percent of Boston’s more than 17,800 COVID-19 cases, according to current data from the city’s Public Health Department. A Boston public schools spokesman said the school nurses last spring provided assistance to at least 200 students whose families had COVID-related crises, including one family who had to leave a homeless shelter due to COVID exposure there.
In communities with high rates of the virus schools reopened online, and many students are planning to continue learning from home when in-person classes resume to protect themselves and high-risk relatives.
"We still don’t understand how it works,'' said Katy Ochoa, a senior at Chelsea High School who tested positive for the virus last month and has since recuperated. “I could get re-infected. I wouldn’t want to do anything to spread it to others.”
School leaders say they’re keenly aware of students’ trauma and are devising ways to help, even from a distance. At Fenway High, the staff is working to assist students after a tough spring in which three students' parents died from COVID-19, two teachers were hospitalized, and several students contracted the virus, Walker said.
"This thing is very real for us,'' he said.
The pandemic forever altered the life of Jose Gonzalez, who was a 17-year-old senior at Fenway last spring. In March, it charged into his two-family Allston home, sickening his aunt and uncle in the unit downstairs, and his 42-year-old father, Edgar upstairs. Jose, his mother, and a younger sister also tested positive for the virus but were asymptomatic.
Gonzalez recalls sitting outside his father’s bedroom, listening to him wheezing and struggling for every breath. Edgar was hospitalized and later died.
"He was a fighter until the very end. Unfortunately COVID won,'' recalled Gonzalez, now a freshman at Wentworth Institute of Technology.
When Gonzalez’s father became ill, Fenway’s staff did what they could: His teachers gave him a break from school work, and a student support coordinator checked in regularly to make sure Jose and his family had groceries and help with the funeral, Gonzalez recalled.
In a normal year, a group from the small, close-knit school — including teachers and students — would have attended the funerals with bereaved students and teachers. They would have been physically present and able to talk, or offer quiet companionship. The disease made such connections difficult.
This fall, Walker said Fenway High’s staff is prioritizing mental health support; teachers and staff are encouraging students to identify and express feelings of anxiety or stress and steer students in need of greater support to either a counselor or mental health services outside the school.
"We know that we’ll have more students who are going to be worried about really important things, and that can sometimes be an obstacle to engaging in [their education]‚'’ Walker said. “It’s going to be a hard year.”
In Chelsea, where nearly 90 percent of the student population is Hispanic and many people are essential employees who have worked throughout the pandemic, roughly 10 percent of the city’s 35,000 people have had the coronavirus, city officials said, citing public health data.
And city manager Tom Ambrosino said officials are increasingly concerned about students' mental health, "given the disruption to their lives, the loss of school, and the loss of social interaction that they’re facing because of COVID.”
Chelsea Superintendent Almi Abeyta said the parent of at least one student died from COVID-19 and another student’s parents were both seriously ill but survived.
The district is going fully remote this fall, in part because so many families said they are afraid to let their children return to classrooms. Abeyta recalled a father who expressed reservations about in-person learning during a reopening meeting this summer: He’d barely survived a bout with the virus that had left him in intensive care for 11 weeks.
Abeyta said finding ways to help Chelsea’s most vulnerable students handle emotional trauma has been “heavily on my mind.”
Just before school started, Chelsea teachers hosted “trust visits” with parents outside school buildings or on the sidewalks, informal chats in which they tried to get a sense of families' needs and identify the most vulnerable students. The district has also hired a social worker and two family liaisons, Abeyta said.
Still, the virus lurks uncomfortably close. Last month, Ochoa, the Chelsea high school senior, and classmate Victoria Stutto spoke at a virtual news conference about the mental, social, and emotional toll the pandemic has had on their personal and school life. Days later, Ochoa came down with the virus.
“I started crying because I was very worried about anybody I had been in close contact with,” she said.
Ochoa called Stutto: They’d taken a car ride together to a photo shoot for a local newspaper article about their speech.
Stutto, whose father died last spring from a non-COVID illness, thought of everyone else she had been near, her mother and brother, who has asthma.
"I was like ‘Oh my God, what if I got it now.' What if I’m the one bringing it into my house?,'’ she recalled.
Stutto’s test results were negative, she said. Even though classes are remote for now, Stutto finds it difficult to imagine ever going back during her final year.
"It’s a red zone [for the coronavirus in Chelsea] right now,'' she said. "Going back to Chelsea High just wouldn’t be safe.”