by Julian Phillips, Freelance Editor, Shiv Sawhney, News Reporter, & Preethika Vemula, News Editor
graphic by Kaila Hanna
Newton parents, students and staff are exploring the effects of isolation on students’ mental health. Superintendent David Fleishman said that Newton Public Schools (NPS) will emphasize community building, social interaction and social-emotional wellbeing throughout the 2020-2021 school year, which is set to start remotely for high-school and middle-school students.
Newton School Committee Chair Ruth Goldman said she has noticed a worrying lack of interaction among students since the spring.
School Committee student representative junior Brendan Weissel said that quarantine has not impacted all students’ mental health in the same way.
“While the majority of people have had a very difficult time, I know a lot of students who improved their mental health [because] they were able to get more sleep and escape their normal, fast-paced lifestyle,” he said.
On August 14, the School Committee voted for a split-hybrid model that was meant to increase student-to-student interaction and social-emotional wellbeing.
“We believe that this is advantageous to give students the opportunity to meet their teachers at the start of the year,” said Fleishman at the August 14 School Committee meeting.
However, after receiving student and staff survey results, the district revised their reopening plan such that the majority of high-school students will learn remotely for the foreseeable future.
There will be opportunities for high school students to interact in-person, potentially including ninth-grade orientations, teacher meet-and-greets, club meetings, athletics, counseling, outdoor arts, affinity and discussion groups and class events, according to the reopening committee’s August 26 presentation.
Weissel said these activities may be ineffective at fostering community. “Social interaction with the safety guidelines would be extremely difficult,” he said.
Director of Guidance Daniel Rubin said there will be community blocks where students meet with their advisory for 30 minutes two times per week. The goal of the community block is to promote students’ social-emotional well-being.
Senior Melissa Shang said that NPS has started focusing on social-emotional wellbeing due to a majority of students having worse mental health.
“In the past [NPS] didn’t care so much about mental health as they do now,” she said. “The health curriculum was terrible for mental health, they only talked about student intervention, which is definitely not enough.”
The NPS Central Administration and all district guidance departments are making additional changes to support students’ mental health. Rather than attempt a one-size-fits-all model, Rubin said the department will strengthen their multi-tiered system of support.
The support system is broken up into three tiers, the first to broadly address the social-emotional needs of every student, the second for students who require further support and the third for students who have personal trauma stemming from the pandemic.
“Advisory, outreach to families and surveys are tier one,” he said. “Tier two, [which is] for 15% or 20% of students who need more intensive intervention, we are doing things like counseling groups, psychoeducational groups.”
English teacher Jeremiah Hill said that teachers have been asked to prioritize students’ social-emotional wellbeing for the first three weeks of school.
“There’s going to be a focus on community building as a class, as a grade, as a school, and making sense of the last six months or so which have been eventful and intense, through some combination of writing and speaking,” he said.
History teacher Eugene Stein said that he has planned several activities for the first few weeks of school.
“We will be doing activities such as community building and so forth,” he said. “We might talk about current events, skills that I want students to learn, maybe geography, icebreakers, getting to know people as best we can through Zoom.”