By Srishti Prabha | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Jay Eddings, 15, with her father, Levi at Franklin High School on Thursday, July 14, 2022. Andrew Nixon/CapRadio

In the expansive Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove, the Franklin High School campus is quiet except for the occasional hushed goodbyes of students leaving summer school. Fifteen-year-old Jay Eddings stands alone against the school fence. It’s a hot day, the temperature creeping up to 90 degrees, but Jay waits with her mask on. She doesn’t wave or call out to any classmates. 

When she does speak, she’s deliberate, carefully choosing her words. “It was really stressful trying to navigate the school in general and trying to put myself out there with people,” Jay says. “It was also really difficult to catch up with schoolwork.” 

Her dad, Levi Eddings, says his daughter lost her mother, aunt, grandmother and brother before the pandemic. As a single parent, he searched for avenues to help with Jay’s academic decline during her first year of high school. 

“She was very depressed and skipping school,” he explains. 

On the heels of these losses, the pandemic began and Jay entered remote-learning. And just as she got comfortable, she had to start her first year of high school in-person. She says returning to the classroom made her “pretty anxious.”

Jay’s experience at Franklin is at once universal and unique. Many students are grappling with change, of course. But they also face their own challenges and adversaries as the pandemic continues.

The student body is the most populous and diverse in Elk Grove Unified, the largest school district in Northern California. According to available data for the 2021-22 year, COVID-19 transmission at Franklin was above average in comparison to other schools in the Sacramento region. 

In a normal school year, students of color overcome insurmountable odds. But this past year, they also endured COVID, mental wellness struggles and the transition from remote to in-person learning. Like Jay, each had their own triggers that required individual attention. 

“Every student who lived in their respective homes had a different experience,” said Chase Moore, a school psychologist with Elk Grove Unified School District (EGUSD) and a part-time school psychologist at Franklin. 

Dodging the virus, debating masks in class

Incoming senior Natalia Ramos sits alone on a bench away from a crowd of students. She’s worried about COVID, she says. She lives in a combined, intergenerational household and doesn’t want to bring it into her home. 

She says she’s acutely aware of the lasting health impacts of COVID.

“My mom worked in the healthcare system and I have elderly family members. Every day I hoped [that] one of my family members doesn’t get COVID,” Ramos said.

Even with all the COVID protocols on campus, one out of every five Franklin students tested positive this last school year, with an average of 120 students exposed for each COVID-positive student. 

“I got COVID [at school] and it was the first time. I was so sad,” 16-year-old Dominique Hamilton shared after rushing out of Franklin’s doors at the end of the summer school day. She laughed with three friends while waiting to be picked up. 

This was not how Hamilton expected her summer to go. “It was the last two weeks of school, so I really couldn’t catch up. That’s why I’m here,” she said, adding that she is making the best of a bad situation.

At Franklin, mask mandates were enforced once during the school year, from December 13 to February 7, when COVID transmission was peaking. The mandates quickly became a contentious topic among some of Hamilton’s peers in the classroom. 

“A lot of people did not like to wear their masks, and … most of them were white students,” she said.

Ramos echoed Hamilton’s thoughts on the classroom masking debate. “There were a handful of people throughout my classes that didn’t want to wear a mask and would voice [it]. Most of them were white,” she said, addressing the discomfort of being in class with people who were anti-masking. 

Ramos wants school officials to take more precautions, such as in the cafeteria, where large groups gather.

“It’s a big hot spot with everybody eating and taking off their masks,” she said.

CapRadio visited the administration office on the Franklin campus, but staff members would not discuss school policies. An EGUSD spokesperson also did not agree to an interview but referred this reporter to the COVID protocols on its official webpage.

Checking-in on mental health

For Ramos and Hamilton, negotiating COVID exposures and sickness, attempting to learn through disruptions and confronting the political discourse around masking was hard enough. And then, there was the stress.

“With COVID, there is a lot of mental stress of having to focus on school when you know that you’re in the middle of a pandemic with this virus that’s all around you,” Ramos said. 

This challenge took place as Califonia’s already high prevalence of youth mental health incidences, and inaccessibility to mental health services, worsened between 2021 and 2022, according to Mental Health Alliance. Students in Sacramento County advocated for increased access to mental health services on campus last school year. 

But even though Hamilton wanted to avoid COVID, she is of two minds when it comes to online and in-person learning. 

She feels her grades were better while learning remotely and preferred waking-up later for class. Back in the classroom, her grades dropped, but she was afforded sociability and easy access to her teachers. 

And after being isolated during the pandemic, she’s still strategizing ways to increase social interactions. “They should have more activities for all grades. I think that will help bring everyone out of their shells, make more friends, and meet more people,” Hamilton said.

Getting accustomed to the freedom of being on campus, incoming senior Kekoa Cano and his two friends use the Franklin High School gym for free during the summer. Kekoa has spent the majority of his high school career at home. His mother, Tami Cano, stepped in as a classroom moderator for Kekoa and his siblings, taking on the added responsibility of academically supporting her children. 

When he started his junior year, he found that his grades improved in-person. “I’m usually a hands-on learner, instead of a cold-computer learner. I had friends to help me keep up,” he said.

However, Tami Cano noticed some differences. “There was a lot of social and emotional stress,” she recalled. 

She finds that her son might be viewing in-person learning through a rose-tinted lens. “As a parent, I honestly think Kekoa’s grades were better when [classes] were online,” she said. 

After adapting to rigorous standards in his home, Kekoa Cano wants an adjusted learning style in the classroom. “More collaborating would be helpful,” he said.

From remote to in-person learning

The social and emotional well-being of students pre- and post-pandemic were exacerbated by academic instability. Black and Hispanic students lost more ground in math than their white peers during the pandemic, Harvard University research shows. Remote learning increased the achievement gap and in-person learning was recommended. 

Yet for students and parents, the transition back to the classroom reaped varying results that were contingent upon pre-existing stressors. 

Take a look at Jay Eddings: The pandemic impacted her personal and educational growth at a formative age. Her first year back to in-person learning was also her freshman year of high school — and she was starting with a disadvantage.

“She was under a lot of stress after four of her family members died,” said Levi Eddings. 

He enlisted a program outside of school to help with her emotional and educational stress. “She’s very intelligent and devoted to learning,” he said. “I know she can do it.”

Math was a particularly hard subject. Jay Eddings says the school should “provide extra studying support.” She seeks academic support outside the classroom because the standardized education system cannot appropriately account for her mental health.

Moore, who is the counselor with the district, says accommodating students’ needs — educationally, emotionally, and behaviorally — has been his priority this past year. 

“Once you understand what the student has gone through in their individual homes, you align that experience they’ve had with their goals and with the goals of the school. It is a fluid partnership creating appropriate expectations and goals,” Moore said. 

Parents recount that Franklin High School teachers and administrators did the best they could to ramp students back into school settings, but premeditating the social and emotional dynamics of high school students has always been a daunting task. After remote learning, the schools and their classrooms need to veer away from standardized models for academic achievement, according to parents. 

And the pandemic’s lasting impact on teens is multifarious and additive: School and life gradually expose students and parents to irreplicable challenges. Jay Eddings has this insight: 

“Don’t expect too much or too little. You can’t assume what’s going to happen [or] what you’re going to experience. All you can really do is try and make your experience better.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Srishti Prabha is a Report For America Corp Member and an Education Reporter for CapRadio News and The Sacramento Observer.

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.