Facebook Post Ignites Conversation Regarding Mental Health
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The Sunday before winter break ended, January 3, 2021, a sophomore posted a message to the “Dear Incoming Stuyvesant Class of 2023…We Have Advice!” Facebook group. The post begins: “Am I the only one who is absolutely dreading going back 2 school tmrw?” and garnered 482 reactions and 374 comments from the rest of the student body. “Corona has taken a real toll on my mental health but there don’t seem to be any real outlets in school,” the student continued. “[EXPLETIVE] the fact that all 3300 of us are just sitting here, accepting the way things have been handled, when frankly what our school is doing is not acceptable […][EXPLETIVE] upholding the reputation of the hellhole that is Stuyvesant High School instead of maintaining the health of its students.”
Comments to the post included “hey, you’re not alone” and “this post really just sums up everything” as Stuyvesant students recounted the difficulties they were facing in remote learning, addressing topics including overwhelming workloads, deteriorating mental health, and lack of enforcement of remote learning policies.
A Spectator survey regarding students’ mental health during the fall semester received a total of 269 responses across all four grades, with questions inquiring about the quality of students’ mental health before and after the March quarantine began. The majority of respondents reported that their mental health has decreased since March 2020, confirming the strong response of the Facebook post. An overwhelming 79 percent of students reported that their mental health had gone down, with eight percent saying that their mental health had remained constant and the remaining 13 percent saying that their mental health had improved. Moreover, while 84 percent of students reported having average or above average mental health prior to remote learning, that number fell to just 35 percent for students’ mental health in its current state.
While there was not a significant difference between students of different genders, the data indicates that the mental health of freshmen has declined the most since pre-quarantine. On average, freshmen’s mental health fell by 1.8 points on a one to five scale. This change was less severe for sophomores and upperclassmen, with their numbers decreasing by 1.5 and 1.3 points, respectively. Notably, the larger decline among freshmen was due to their mental health rankings in the “pre-Covid” period (4.1) compared to that of other students (3.6). Currently, all students hover around 2.2. The larger decline among freshmen’s mental health could be caused by the academically strenuous transition for many freshmen.
Students expanded on their responses through an optional short response question at the bottom of the form. “I live in a small one-bedroom apartment with five people, and it's really stressful,” one student said. Others shared similar experiences: “I’m a Big Sib and talking to my Little Sibs is so concerning right now. They are mostly below zero on the scale for mental health because of a lack of socialization and an awful introduction to Stuy,” “I don’t have any time for myself. I get off of class, eat lunch, do hw, eat dinner, do more hw, hygiene, maybe even more hw, and then go to sleep wanting this tiring cycle to end,” and “Wish the bar was lower. My mental health is in the negatives.”
Students’ reactions to the Facebook post as well as to remote learning as a whole stem from multiple issues ranging from course load and intense school days to a lack of socialization. “I kind of really hate it. Like, as much as I hated the long commute to school and waking up at six in the morning, the one-hour classes now make [the school day] even more unbearable to sit through,” sophomore Michelle Hu said. “Due to everything being remote, I don’t feel like I’m learning anything in class. I have to spend extra time [outside of class] trying to relearn [the material] in order to actually even do the homework.”
The post cultivated a collective sentiment among the students regarding the struggles they felt during remote learning. “My immediate reaction to the post was, ‘Wow, that's exactly how I feel.’ No one else had put something into words that way before,” Student Union (SU) President Julian Giordano said. “This really resonates with a lot of students because we’ve been internalizing this a lot. We've been blaming this on ourselves. We’ve been saying this year’s been really hard because I'm doing something wrong, and that’s not the case.”
While mental health issues and overwhelming workloads were present at Stuyvesant even before remote learning, Assistant Principal of Pupil Personnel Services Casey Pedrick has noted a tonal shift amid the pandemic. “This is the start of my 11th year, and I’ve always, from day one, heard different iterations of ‘the workload is too much,’” she said. “But this wave feels different. This wave feels like a cry for help, [a] waving of the white flag in surrender.”
English teacher Megan Weller, too, has had encounters with students who are struggling. “I have had several email, office hours, after-[class] Zoom chats with students [about] how hard it is, particularly because it is remote learning, because we are in a pandemic,” she said. “Whether what’s hard is being in a house, being depressed about everything that is going on and therefore losing motivation to do work and falling behind, [those] emotions are taking a physical toll.”
Still, not all students feel this way. Some members of the student body believe that the remote setting has allowed their mental health to improve. “I have also lost so much [motivation], but if [I] were to compare it to me on March 7, 2020, [I] would say [my mental health is] significantly higher [...] It’s a mix of me having 1+6+10 free so my day flies by each time, and some good teachers,” an anonymous sophomore commented on the Facebook post.
Additionally, a minority of students who replied to the post feel the amount of work that has been assigned during remote learning has been manageable. “I feel that the school has adjusted as best as possible to the situation [...] I do not think there is a crazy amount of homework being given even before the remote learning undertaken this year,” an anonymous senior commented on the post. Similarly, an anonymous sophomore commented, “We’re getting about half the work we usually get, in my experience [I] have a lot of free time after class.”
Sophomore Navid Zunaid, too, has found remote learning easier because of an increased amount of his free time. “I think remote learning is freedom and you have, let’s say, two to three hours more free time, more time to do the things that you might find personally meaningful,” he said.
While social studies teacher David Wang tries to take his students’ time into consideration, his workload has increased considerably due to the constraints given in teaching the AP curriculum within the virtual setting. “I don't believe there’s any limit on how much work we should give,” he said. “I think that’s left up entirely to the discretion of the teacher. I myself try to take into consideration how much time my students have and the work that I give might be too much, but [...] I have to give a certain amount due to the fact that I have to cover what’s going to be on the AP.”
According to the “Fall 2020 Instructional Expectations” document, teachers must “adhere to all school and departmental policies … the homework policy for the 10-period day remains in effect, so teachers may assign up to an hour of homework between live sessions in non-AP classes, and up to two hours of homework between live sessions in AP classes.”
Students acknowledge that teachers are not completely at fault for not adhering strictly to the guidelines. “I feel like the teachers don’t have as much guidance as to what they should be doing and what they should not be doing,” junior Ava Yap said. “I’m not completely blaming them because they have a lot going on, too.”
The SU also recognizes that teachers’ infractions do not come from a place of bad intent. “When it comes to a lot of policy infractions and issues that we get emailed from students about teachers giving too much homework, or giving tests on the wrong day, it’s often the same teachers over and over again, and something we’ve noticed about that is it’s oftentimes not coming from a bad place from teachers,” junior and SU Vice President Shivali Korgaonkar said.
More generally, the SU has been responsible for mediating many of the student-teacher interactions and conflicts. "We’d really like to talk to teachers directly, and teachers who may not be as aware of SLT meetings and discussions we have with students and each other,” Giordano said.
Giordano is hopeful that students’ sentiments will inspire change in the administration’s handling of remote learning. “We’re at this place in time where we can try new things that have never been tried before, and if we create change now, I think it will stick, and it can fundamentally change Stuyvesant culture,” he said.
Hu is less optimistic, however. “When I read the post and I realized how many people were also really upset about everything, I was like, ‘Wow, maybe something will change,’” she said. “But in all honesty, I really don’t think the policies will change due to the teachers.”
Hu feels her complaints fall on deaf ears not just among teachers but also among support staff and the administration. “Whenever I hear from [my] guidance counselor, they usually just say the same things like, ‘Oh, just be organized,’ or ‘Just have a schedule,’ or ‘Just talk it out with teachers,’” she said. “But whenever you try to mention that things are rough, they kind of just throw the same things at you. It feels like they aren’t really listening.”
From a guidance perspective, Pedrick is unsure of how to help students without a considerable change in teachers’ behavior. “From a counseling standpoint, we are just in a position to just give advice and work with time management and report things to Assistant Principals and hope some change happens, but it’s not happening,” Pedrick said. Pedrick further explained that guidance counselors mainly provide support for students and report observations to the administration.
One concrete change students would like to see implemented is policy revision. “I know I’ve had nights where I’ve stayed up until midnight, 1:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., even 4:00 a.m., just doing work and getting through all my stuff,” Yap said. “That takes a huge toll on my physical and mental health. I just think that they need to restructure what they already have in order to make it more sustainable for students.”
More broadly, administrators hope that Stuyvesant can open more conversations regarding class workload through improved student-teacher relationships. “We would love students to have a relationship with their teachers where they feel safe bringing that [workload issues] to them, but we also respect that for students, that’s not often their comfort level,” Pedrick said.
Pedrick also noted how Stuyvesant teachers and administrators may need to readjust expectations for covering curricula given the circumstances. “I know that a lot of the teachers of AP classes are very concerned about getting through all of the material to set their students up for the best possible success,” she said. “I’m even wondering if we can just recalibrate that. What is our definition of success?”
Students hope that going forward, the administration and teachers will show a greater understanding of their circumstances. “If they were just a little bit more approachable to the students, and if they made it a little bit easier for students to get in contact with them or understand the students a little bit more, what they are going through,” senior Bineth Abeysekera said. “Our mental health is deteriorating because of the pandemic so be a little bit easier on us, just a tad bit.”