Martha Smith sat in her car for a Zoom call on Tuesday night, an hour and a half away from her North Idaho home, parked outside of the best place for her to reach reliable WiFi.
Kenna O’Donnell joined the call on her iPhone during a break from work at a waffle house, apologizing for the ambient noise and coworkers who walked behind her screen.
And three other student leaders from across Idaho turned off the presidential debate, put away their phones and homework at 8 p.m. on Tuesday evening for the chance to share their thoughts with State Board of Education president Debbie Critchfield and Executive Director Matt Freeman. The small gathering was the first casual meeting in a new effort by the state board to check in with Idaho’s K-12 students at least twice a year, a process championed by Coeur d’Alene High School senior Lilian Smith.
The conversation covered everything from student’s experiences in a COVID-19 world to their needs and hopes for the future. Despite geographic differences and varied back-to-school dynamics, the five youth shared a common concern: mental health.
“If teachers and adults could understand that this (pandemic) isn’t something we can just easily adjust to. This is something no one has experienced before and right now I don’t think the main focus is school, or even extracurriculars,” O’Donnell said. “We really need to be focusing on the mental health of students because this has taken a big toll on a lot of the people that I know.”
O’Donnell attends Rocky Mountain High School in Meridian, which is currently operating in a hybrid model, allowing students back into school buildings a few days a week. But dances have been canceled, O’Donnell said and attendance restricted for football games. She still mourns a lost softball season in the spring and worries about her classmates who rely on extracurriculars as an “escape.”
“How long can we continue to keep those things out of our lives?” she said.
Coeur d’Alene High School is also allowing students back into school buildings on alternating days — but “school is just more depressing” than it used to be, said senior Lilian Smith. Interactions are interrupted by distance, and masks.
“When you’re in school now it’s just sitting, staring at the teacher, taking notes, when before it was interacting with your peers and making jokes in class,” Lilian Smith said. “That doesn’t happen anymore, which is really hard.”
Teachers at Xavier Charter School in Twin Falls noticed a change in the senior class when students came back to school this fall, senior Alan Bonilla said. His peers were quieter, less talkative, or downright “Debbie downers.” In response, a handful of his teachers set aside schoolwork to spend a class period just talking with the kids, checking in on them and giving them advice, Bonilla said. It helped.
“I’ve immediately seen a difference in my class. I see them laughing now. I didn’t see them laugh for the first week of school,” Bonilla said.
Mental health is a priority for the state board of education, Critchfield said. The state allocated $1 million in funds earmarked for students’ social emotional needs earlier this year. She told Idaho Education News after the call that hearing students’ perspectives affirmed that state leaders are on the right track when it comes to addressing kids’ most pressing needs — but that it also reinforced the urgency of that work.
“It produces a feeling in me that we need to be stronger, and some of the things that we were looking at down the road, we need to speed up timelines,” she said.
Tuesday’s call wasn’t all doom and gloom. Students talked about their career plans, the ways they’ve adapted to meet COVID-19 challenges, and hopes for Generation Z.
Martha Smith hopes her generation can build political tolerance. Smith attends the small 200-student Clearwater Valley High School in the rural Mountain View school district, where the risk of COVID-10 is considered low and the school year is off to a “very normal” start. Still, response to the virus has become so politicized in her community that Smith feels any precautionary measures related to COVID-19 are automatically considered “left leaning.”
“That’s a really frustrating thing. Sometimes I feel like I’m choosing between having my friends like me and doing what’s right for my health,” Smith said. “Tolerance and I think love is hopefully what we build in these next couple of years, regardless of how the election turns out.”