By Tricia Murdoch Zmaj
While parents are feeling the strain of the ongoing global pandemic, their children are also experiencing difficult emotions. The important issue of schooling has families weighing the options for their children during this unprecedented year.
Daphne Thomas, professor of social work at La Sierra University, said that more children are currently living with high levels of stress. According to her, “Children absorb the experience of those around them. They may worry about vulnerable loved ones as well as parents who work in situations where they are exposed.”
The effects are amplified as the stressful conditions persist. “Chronic stress changes the chemical and physical structure of the brain and can impair cognition, attention, concentration, memory, and creativity,” said Thomas, who adds that there can be longer-lasting effects. “Mental health and academic achievement are linked. When mental health suffers, then academics start to fall behind.”
Schools in Southeastern California Conference are responding to these challenges. Don Dudley, conference superintendent, said, “From the beginning, our teachers have really stepped up and have been amazingly creative in reaching students, whether they are learning in the classroom or joining our schools remotely.” He noted that while most students have returned to campus, one fourth of enrolled students have chosen to stay home and use the online instructional format.
Students who are on campus observe social distancing measures that have allowed them to safely return to the classroom for interactions with their teachers and classmates. “The students meet in cohorts and stay with the same group in the classroom, on the playground, and when they are dismissed,” said Dudley. Schools have not had a widespread outbreak since the pandemic began due to these successful measures.
Libett Muñoz Beard, principal of La Sierra Academy, recognizes the importance of creating a safe environment for their students. “In many of our families, there are multiple generations living in the same home,” she said. “Both the students and parents are worried about the older generation’s safety.”
La Sierra Academy safely follows the socially distanced cohort model, and Muñoz keeps in close contact with each student’s family. “When we are living with so much anxiety, La Sierra Academy offers all of our students a community of shared values,” she said. “The priority is for students to feel safe here.”
Marnie Straine is a professor of social work at La Sierra University and a parent of two elementary-aged boys attending La Sierra Academy. “At first I was worried about my kindergartener starting online. My oldest, who is now in the fourth grade, had a wonderful kindergarten experience, and I was mourning that my youngest son would not have the same experience,” Straine said. “I didn’t need to worry though! The kindergarten teacher is amazing, and my five-year-old has had a great experience.”
Straine said that the current normal has not slowed down her sons’ joy about going to school. “Kids are really resilient, and they have adjusted to wearing a mask to school and social distancing from classmates. I realized that they were really enjoying their experience and I was the one who was having a hard time adjusting to the change.”
She praised her sons’ teachers, saying, “They have been incredible and have spent countless hours responding to parent emails. There are so many different ways that their students are attending their classes, and they have to set up different curriculum plans. Whenever I see them at school, they are still so cheerful and energetic.”
Each morning, when she drives up to La Sierra Academy, her sons greet the staff members who welcome them and walk them to their classrooms. “This has become normal for them,” Straine said. “The world can seem incredibly chaotic to children right now, and when they have a school and teacher that provides them with peaceful consistency, they can really adapt to this current normal that we are all experiencing.”
Throughout all of the changes, Dudley emphasized that “the schools have maintained a tremendous spiritual focus. Our schools are continuing with their academic excellence and rigor while growing the students physically, socially, and spiritually. SECC schools continue to uphold the values of Adventist Education to educate the whole child.”