Nearly all of us have experienced that mix of excitement and nervousness that sneaks into those last few weeks of a childhood summer, when the first day of a new school year draws closer and the days get shorter.
But what’s it like when you’re not just coming back to school from summer, but from an ongoing pandemic that had shut down classrooms for more than a year and entirely upended education as we know it?
During the school shutdown of the past year and a half, Solid Ground helped keep resident students connected to school through technology and personal relationships. Now, they are gearing up to support students to return to schools while still navigating the pandemic-changed world.
For youth whose families have overcome domestic violence and/or living unhoused, reliable housing at Solid Ground’s Broadview and Sand Point Housing campuses provided stability during the pandemic and will support them through this new transition.
“Kids are resilient, especially the ones we get to work with here, but this year has been really, really hard,” says Oliver Alexander-Adams, Family and Children’s Program Manager at Sand Point’s Brettler Family Place. “The thing about school is it’s not just about learning. It’s about making friends, building relationships, and beginning the process of learning to be an adult. In a lot of ways, that just didn’t happen this year.”
Staff at Broadview and Sand Point have been working tirelessly over the last year and half to foster the stability children need to thrive in their lives – particularly in the face of a pandemic that created so much uncertainty and anxiety. That meant finding new ways to connect with kids and create fun, educational experiences online instead of in person, and transitioning a tutoring service into a mentoring program so kids could have access to additional adult relationships and guidance outside their family.
“The kids are just looking forward to hanging out with other kids, because they haven’t been able to for so long,” says Arturo Velasquez, who works closely with parents living in Brettler Family Place as a Residential Advocate.
We sat down with three students who live at Brettler Family Place and asked them what it’s been like to navigate school during a pandemic, and what they’re thinking about as they prepare to go back to the classroom after more than a year of digital learning. Their stories show just how resilient children and young adults can be, but also how difficult the last year has been and how much hope this fall offers.
Michael – 6th grade
Ask 11-year-old Michael what he’s most excited about going back to in-person school, and he’ll tell you it’s the simple things: pencils, paper, and a library full of books.
For the last year and half – part of 4th grade and all of 5th – Michael’s school experience was almost entirely digital: classes online, homework online, quizzes online. Like most elementary school students in Seattle, he started going back into the classroom last spring, but only one day a week and only while wearing a mask and sitting at desks pulled six feet apart.
Michael says this fall is going to be completely different for him – but not because of the pandemic.
“I’m nervous,” says Michael, whose return to the classroom coincides with his first year in middle school. “It’s going to be an entirely new school. I’m only going to know my friends from elementary school.”
But Michael says he’s also excited to be done with online learning, which has been “much harder” than learning in the classroom. For example, when he had to give a presentation for class, he’d have to click through a series of links and figure out how to make PowerPoint work properly – and that was just to get started.
Michael was one of several resident students who beat back the boredom of the pandemic this past winter by taking part in a digital version of Art Club. He also loves reading, so it was hard for him when the library at his elementary school was shut down and he had to choose from a small selection of books on a cart that was pushed out into the hallway.
Nyaagon – High school junior
Nyaagon, 16, had just moved back to Seattle after living in Uganda for 2½ years and was only a few months into her freshman year at a new school when everything shut down. Instead of easing back into life as a high school student in the U.S., Nyaagon and her classmates were all thrown into a new kind of learning that many of them struggled with.
“Having time away from people, not having to be around people all the time, it just gave me time to think and get everything together. I feel like I’ve gained confidence in myself.” ~Nyaagon, 16
With classes online, Nyaagon says assignments would come at them rapid fire, instead of being doled out over the course of a school day, and it was difficult for students to engage with the material. Even when teachers would split students off into “breakout rooms” to discuss their lessons, she says most would sit silently until the teacher logged in to their room to check on them. “The assignments kept adding up more than the class time,” she says. “I couldn’t keep up.”
Nyaagon says she was actually excited to get back into the classroom when schools started experimenting with a hybrid model last spring, but it wasn’t what she expected. Instead of logging in to class from their laptops at home, the students were just logging in from their laptops at their desk in the classroom. And she says the chatter and goofing around she was used to at school was suddenly gone.
But something else happened to Nyaagon during the pandemic. She says she used to feel very anxious at school, in part because of the accent she had when she first moved to the U.S. with her family when she was in elementary school, but now she says that anxiety is going away.
“Having time away from people, not having to be around people all the time, it just gave me time to think and get everything together,” she says. “I feel like I’ve gained confidence in myself.”
Africa – College sophomore
Last summer, Africa gathered up the money he’d been saving from his job as a soccer referee and bought a used car – his family’s first. The purchase would allow Africa to support his parents – who do not drive or speak English – as well as drive across Lake Washington to start his freshman year at Bellevue College, where he planned to get an associate’s degree before transferring to a four-year university.
Africa never did drive that car to school (although having it meant his family no longer had to take the bus to the grocery store during the pandemic). Instead, he logged in to his first day of college from his bed at Brettler Family Place, using a laptop computer that he bought with scholarship money he’d earned. He eventually got a desk to study from, but he didn’t attend a single class on campus during his freshman year.
Africa says the biggest thing he missed out on last year was building relationships. There was no hanging out after class, no joining clubs or visiting professors during office hours. He was able to get support from some teachers, but he says he wasn’t about to build “the close connections” he’d been looking forward to.
“All things considered, compared to other people, I feel like I had a good experience.” ~Africa, 19
But when he wasn’t able to get the support he needed at school, Africa says he was always able to turn to the staff at Brettler Family Place, particularly Oliver Alexander-Adams, who helped him with his calculus homework. Oliver says the pandemic gave Sand Point staff an opportunity to shift its volunteer tutoring program toward a mentorship model, so that volunteers were not just helping students with homework but also offering advice, professional connections, and a relationship with an adult outside their family.
Despite all the challenges, Africa had lots of successes in his first year as a college student. He competed in a business proposal competition held by DECA – an international leadership and entrepreneurship development organization – and placed seventh in the nation. And despite not being able to hang out on campus, he managed to make two good friends that he’s excited to meet in person this fall.
Africa still doesn’t know exactly what instruction will look like at Bellevue College this year, but he’s excited to actually be on campus and build relationships with teachers and classmates alike. And in the end, he actually doesn’t have many complaints about the last year of virtual college.
“All things considered,” he says, “compared to other people, I feel like I had a good experience.”