Masks in school a thing of the past

Johnnyla Smith at CHS said not being able to be in close touch with friends has been a challenge during the pandemic.

School rules for pandemic protection will soften at the start of the new year Aug. 10, and for many students the changes cannot come soon enough.

With masks now optional and the option of eLearning with an in-person teacher and classroom a thing of the past, how have mandatory face coverings, social distancing and learning from home affected students these past two school years?

The new rules decided by the Brevard County School Board May 21 make masks optional and removes eLearning from the available choices in favor of allowing concerned parents to enroll their children in Brevard Virtual School.

Students at the K-8 Viera Charter School partnered with students at Cocoa High School to look at how the pandemic has affected them the past one and a half school years. The VCS Student Council has partnered with the junior and now senior high school students since the Cocoa High student attended Endeavour Elementary School.

“I have been a lot more stressed out and anxious in the pandemic,” said Caterina Grant, who along with her student council peers will for the most part be moving to Viera High School and other select high schools. “It has taken a toll on a lot of people’s mental health, with all the isolation, family members passing away, changes to school events, having to wear a mask, and so on.”

The school district has tried to intervene with mandatory mental health teachings on how to deal with depression and how students can spot their peers who might be at risk for suicide. Suicide touched home at Cocoa High when a student took his life this year.

“If I only knew, I would have reached out to him to make sure he was OK,” journalism student Steven Zembreski wrote in a yearbook article about his classmate and best friend.

School absenteeism has become a huge red flag for mental health distress, Cocoa High social worker Katherine Warrick noted. “The effects of the pandemic on students is only now becoming clear and will likely take some years to address it,” Warrick added.

For Faith Johnson, the Viera field trip to Washington, D.C. for eighth graders to enhance Civics and U.S. Government education was something she looked forward to for years and had to miss due to cancellation.

“It’s such a huge part of what we have all looked forward to for years for our chance to go, and the opportunity won’t come again. There have been many ceremonies and events like this one that many students will miss out on forever.”

One thing Johnson won’t miss are the face masks. “They really are a hassle to wear all day, they get sweaty, it’s hard to exert yourself and then have to breathe hard, and it is impossible to clearly hear people when they speak. You also miss out on so much communication because you don’t see facial expressions.”

Add to all of this, the social distancing requirement on top of masks.

“In middle school, it’s a big deal to be with your friends,” said rising eighth grader Johnnyla Smith. “You want to hug them and run around and be a kid with your friends, but you can’t even sit next to them and talk to them, at a time when you need your friends the most. It makes a hard time even harder without that support.”

According to the May 21 decision, some social distancing rules will remain in place.

“Making masks optional is a step in the direction of returning to normal,” VCS Principal Dr. Julie Cady said. “But obviously, we have a way to go before we are out of the pandemic in schools, and helping students regain what they may have lost will be an ongoing mission.”