Oregon students talk facing mental health challenges, bullying while learning during a pandemic

SALEM, Ore. (KGW) — By many accounts, this school year has seemed harder than even last year’s issues related to remote learning. Teachers and educators have told us they’re feeling overwhelmed from the fights, classroom disruptions, and heightened anxiety of in-person school.

KGW decided to reach out to students to give them a chance to vent and talk about how things are going from their perspective. Some of the students are younger, so parents gave them permission to be interviewed.

KGW spoke to three students who attend class in Salem-Keizer Public Schools. Grace Caldwell, a senior at McKay High School, Paul Quach who is a senior at North High School and Dara Elkanah, a senior at South Salem High School. All three said this year is a challenge.

“There is a lot of, more disrespect going around to teachers. There has been more violence and fights going on,” said Elkanah.

Kids are skipping class. Caldwell said she sees them when she helps out in the library.

“There’s like, tons of kids skipping. I mean, we’re talking like 30 to 50 kids skipping sometimes and it’s just like, ‘Wow, things have changed,’” she said.

“It’s the same thing at North as well,” added Quach. “This is like a roller coaster where we had like really high highs and really low lows.”

The students told KGW that everyone seems mentally exhausted this school year.

“You just notice the morale is really low in the school,” said Caldwell.

On top of that, students are dealing with bullying online.

“Just taking pictures of people without their consent, and there might be like bad comments about it,” Elkanah said.

In some cases, that bullying extends to teachers too. Elkanah said she, Quach and Caldwell are part of an anti-bullying group.

“I mentioned this to one of my teachers and she’s like, ‘Can teachers be a part of that? Because I’m getting bullied by students,” said Elkanah.

“It’s a whole mess. But we’re still trying to figure it out,” Quach said.

A Vancouver student’s perspective

In Vancouver, 9th-grader Katie Pyatt said she’s seen similar things.

“I’ve definitely noticed like the disrespect being there because a lot of kids don’t like wearing their masks and like will keep them held down, and then just like ignore the teachers when they ask to pull them up,” said Pyatt. “So I’ve seen that. There have been a few fights as well.”

Still, overall, she’s happy school is back in person.

“I get to see my friends a lot more and it’s nicer to see my family a little less after being stuck in the same house with them forever,” said Pyatt.

Her brother Colin is 8 years old and is in 3rd grade this year. He said he hasn’t seen any fights at his school.

“I like how it’s actually in person instead of online because I thought that was a lot harder to learn,” Colin Pyatt said.

Students outside of the Portland area

Outside of the Portland area, 10-year-old Caleb Duncan is also grateful to be back in person. For his 5th-grade year, he’s attending a charter school in the Dallas School District.

He said he’s been able to socialize more with other kids and even did a Christmas play this year. Duncan said at his school, he hasn’t seen any fights or kids talking back to teachers.

“It’s way better. I mean, like, versus sitting at home all day in front of the screen. It’s like you can’t even compare them, they’re so different,” said Duncan.

His mom Janica Duncan has four other kids. One is in kindergarten attending the same charter school as their brother. Another has already graduated high school. But two of them attend public school in the Central School District located in Independence. One is in middle school and the other is in high school. They weren’t available to speak, but Janica Duncan told KGW what they told her.

“The middle school especially is really bad, like kids will just walk out of class,” said Janica Duncan.

She said her child in middle school broke down several times about how stressful school has been, especially when she had to take tests the other week.

“She has a very difficult time listening to teachers while they’re wearing masks,” Duncan said. “They’re thankful to be in person, but it is, it’s not quite ideal yet.”

Salem-Keizer Public School students hope to make positive change

Back at Salem-Keizer, the three students who spoke to KGW are taking initiative and plan to hold what is being called student engagement cafes at elementary, middle and high schools across the district.

“We talk about anti-bullying. We talk about cyberbullying. We talk about mental health problems,” said Elkanah.

“The whole process is just to give voice to students,” Quach said.

It’s expected that the cafes will start up in late January or early February. The students plan to present feedback they acquire to the school board and hopefully make some positive changes.

While there’s been a lot of change for students, Elkanah is choosing to look at the challenges in a positive light.

“There’s been a lot of change, but I know that translates to growth.”

Some background

The road forward through the rest of the school year will continue to be a tough one. Teachers and educators have repeatedly told KGW that students this year have more needs than ever before, from academic to social/emotional. Many teachers have said they don’t have enough time to address all those needs. What makes the situation worse is the teacher and staffing shortage. Many districts are offering incentives, but it also takes time to hire and train new people. Right now at the state level, there are efforts to figure out short-term solutions and longer-term ones too.

KGW has been covering how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted schools and education and will continue to do so. But we want to hear from you. Please send any story ideas/issues to KGW by e-mail through the “Contact Us” section of the KGW website.

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