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Student Advisory Council shares challenges of school during pandemic

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Shawnee Public School students wore masks and socially distanced throughout this year to stay safe against COVID-19.

High school students across Oklahoma met virtually with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister on Tuesday to offer insight on how their learning experiences have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic, urging greater support for mental health and more resources for teachers.

The 97 students are part of her 2021 Student Advisory Council to suggest how public education can recover from learning loss and others issues emerging over the past year. Among those on the council are local students Kathryn Buxton, Meeker; Carter Johnson, Seminole; Hanaa Saidi, Shawnee; Ayzia Shirey, Tecumseh; and John Clemmons, Bethel.

This is the sixth consecutive year Hofmeister has convened a student group of juniors and seniors to assist her and the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) in matters of policy. In past years, feedback from the council has been instrumental in state-level initiatives to provide teachers more professional development in trauma-informed instruction, replace end-of-course high school testing with the ACT or SAT, and pilot Individual Career Academic Planning.

Many students expressed concern about the stress the pandemic has put on them and their teachers.

“It has been really hard to keep up with all my classes. If it weren’t for teachers who said, ‘It’s going to be OK. We can get through this,’ I probably wouldn’t have gotten a lot of my stuff done,” said Aaron Dodd, Broken Arrow senior. “We definitely need to help the teachers in any way we can because they’re helping us so much.”

“Every person I know that is either a classmate at my school or in the surrounding community has been going through a hard time mentally,” said Natalie Rojo, an Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy senior who teaches younger students at her church. "Our schools need more support in helping kids through counseling and strategies to get through this.”

John Clemmons, a Bethel senior, said uncertainty and inconsistency are taking a toll on his peers.

“There’s not a lot of faith that students hold about what the next week is going to look like,” he said. “There’s not really reassurance that school is going to go on, that we’re still going to be able to learn and that we’ve got this. There’s not a lot of encouragement. That affects students mentally.”

Hofmeister emphasized the importance of communication of school leaders to ensure stability of school operations. She also said it is critical to prioritize mental health supports for students.

“I want to see mental health support in every school building. It will help our younger kids who are going through great trauma and stress at home. They then act out in school but can’t express why,” Hofmeister said. “We know there are many kids in middle school and high school desperate for a meaningful, trusting relationship with an adult, and sometimes that’s in school. It could be their teacher or their counselor – that person they can connect with and get resources that they need – then refocus on academics. If we don’t think about the whole child, we’re not going to see our kids reach their full potential.”

To provide more services for all Oklahoma students, Hofmeister has included $18.2 million in the OSDE budget request for a School Counselor Corps in Fiscal Year 2022. The program would fund more counselor positions to close the student-counselor gap in schools. Oklahoma’s current student-to-counselor ratio is 412 to 1, significantly lower than the American School Counselor Association’s recommended ratio of 250 to 1.

Students also lamented the loss of extracurricular activities outside of athletics.

"When we lose all these extracurriculars tethering us to school and we lose all this excitement at school, we lose morale. Losing this engagement has been really tough,” said Jonathan Menzel, a junior from Inola. “Seeing a lot of sports continue while fine arts has to be cut for COVID reasons is hard to watch.”

The students on the advisory council were recommended by their district superintendents. They represent rural, urban and suburban schools of all sizes across Oklahoma. Forty-four of the members also served on the council last year.