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Stock Images and Stress: Community During the Pandemic

How stress culture leads to a lack of meaningful community in schools today

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Excited about using values of empathy and justice to reimagine more equitable classrooms. Big fan of Carole King's Tapestry album, hikes and politics podcasts.

When I search for “high school students” on Google Images, joyful-looking teenagers with some sense of shared camaraderie appear. They’re engaging in cliche school activities: holding sports balls on their way to practice, laughing while doing homework in the hallways and participating in group discussions around a library table.

While scrolling, I took to group chats I have with various classes and clubs at school. I asked my peers — in what should be noted to be a quite informal research manner — to tell me the first word or short phrase that comes to mind when they think of what school has been like since September. “Useless; tiring; overwhelming; lonely; pointless; boring; exhausting; limited; clumpy; ow; ugly; uncertainty; stressful.”

Of course, I understand my escapade with stock images is not representative of even a pre-coronavirus school experience. School is a notorious cause of stress for students. But what is unprecedented about this year is the isolation of that stress. Sure, in February of 2020, I felt stressed about my upcoming chemistry test and exhausted after staying up late to finish a history essay. However, I also felt excited to be part of the cliche school activities like hanging out with friends between classes and going to Friday night basketball games. The latter is what has been missing. We’ve lost the community that comes with togetherness.

“There’s a reason why school happens at school,” says Aniyah Jones, a high school junior in the Syracuse City School District. She continues, explaining “being around a comfortable environment or a place that we associate with rest will make us behave that way.” But for the safety and public health of our community, we cannot be in that comfortable space — or for hybrid students like Aniyah and myself, we can only be in that comfortable space for a few hours each week. This lack of togetherness is especially felt by student-athletes, Aniyah being one, who used to spend most of their week at school, either in class or in practice. Before March, playing in the next game with her team motivated her to complete all of her assignments. Now, though still a great student, the motivation isn’t as strong for Aniyah.

This is not to say that the enduring social-emotional challenge has been lost on school leaders. In March, my school district in Syracuse, New York pivoted to focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of students, gathering a team of educators, social workers and other restorative professionals. This team has worked with a local T.V. station and created virtual lessons focused on the topic. More recently, county public mental health workers have collaborated with Superintendent Jaime Alicea’s Student Cabinet to explore how students can contribute to a more positive learning environment.

Given these initiatives and many other experiences, I do not believe educators are responsible for the loss of community. In fact, one of the most major silver linings I’ve noticed in this pandemic is the growing relationship of human-to-human connection, as opposed to ever-powerful-teacher-to-student. It would be unfair to say that COVID-19 has been the great equalizer given incredible disparities in American institutions. But the pandemic has certainly taken away a traditional sense of what school is for both teachers and students, while also offering an opportunity for relationship building.

Maryam Al Mafrachi, a senior at Nottingham High School, has been incredibly active in the school with various clubs for the last four years. It’s important to her to have strong relationships with teachers, a part of her high school experience that has carried through to her learning during COVID-19. For Maryam, making conscious efforts to turn her camera on in class or attend optional office hours has helped. She noted that although everyone is struggling in some way, underclassmen, consisting of freshmen and sophomores, are probably struggling the most with this relationship-building. “The underclassmen didn’t really get accustomed to high school,” said Maryam. Perhaps they have yet to experience that stock image camaraderie.

Whether people like their schools’ or not, every high school has some kind of community or culture. It’s interesting to think about how that is shifting for students now.

As we’re understanding what it means to lack community, it’s important to have a grasp of what community means. When strong, a community can build more healthy student relationships and foster a sense of welcome. But to achieve that is not just pep rallies and the other stereotypical activities shown in stock images. Community is an emotionally dependent space that, thanks to technology, can take place from a distance.

As young community members, students are taking the lead in this work. A few weeks ago, I attended a movie night dialogue hosted by the Syracuse delegation of the Seeds of Peace organization. We watched The Hate U Give, a powerful film about police violence, and had a 45-minute facilitated dialogue following the viewing. Bhadra Mishra, a Syracuse Seed and freshman at Bowdoin College, organized this community-based event with urban advocacy in mind. She knew many people involved in the delegation were civically involved and that this event would spark a greater awareness of civic work, particularly noting the prevalence of “racism, police brutality, and white privilege.”

Discussions like these need to exist on a broader scale. An essential part of community-building is leaving space to engage in dialogue and process intense feelings. As pillars of our communities and in building a new generation, schools have a responsibility to host such spaces. It would be remorseful for schools to ignore more complex emotions felt by students and educators in the last year.

Nationally, educators — including some at my school — have found community and gained curricular resources through social platforms like Woke Teachers and Educators for Justice to facilitate further discussions like the one Bhadra led. Peer-to-peer support has also been used to build community right now. Aniyah Jones was able to find some of that through club involvement, as many student-led clubs like Nottingham Girl Up have continued virtually this school year. She encourages the school to share the club opportunities with a larger student audience, saying “a lot have had a fairly easy shift from in-person to Zoom meetings.” Maryam Al Mafrachi suggests hosting classroom discussions between educators and students to reimagine the education system moving forward. It’s a subject that is so intertwined in the experiences of both parties and the community as a whole.

I am hopeful, perhaps overly optimistic, that I will soon be able to learn in person more often than one morning a week. Many teachers have been immunized across my state including in the Central New York region. When the time comes, I cannot wait to safely rejoice together. But until and after then, it is critical that we focus on community-building first and foremost so that we return with deeper relationships and greater appreciation for togetherness.