Masks, Delta, and Depression: Young Milwaukee Students Share Thoughts about Going Back to School

Milwaukee, WI – The pandemic struck hard in March 2020. Many were left wondering what would happen to their personal health, their jobs, their bills, and most importantly, their children. Schools closed their doors and students were ordered to stay home to do “virtual learning” – sitting in front of screens for 7 hours a day while parents faced the difficult decision of staying home, hiring nannies, or simply leaving their kids to their own devices. For many parents, they could not afford to make a decision. They had to go to work while their children stayed at home alone and be trusted to log in to classes and finish homework assignments. More than a year later, this compounding stress on families to adjust to shifting COVID guidelines has left children severely affected. 

13-year-old Raul Gordillo was a fifth grader at Milwaukee’s Escuela Vieau when the pandemic started. “I was kind of confused about what we were going to be doing. I just thought we were going to be off from school for a while and that made me happy,” he recalls. 

11-year-old Mooney Swain, a fourth grader at Milwaukee charter school Escuela Verde, had a different outlook. “My mom has her own business doing hair and she started crying because she thought she had no more work,” she tells me. Many small business owners were able to apply for small business loans during the pandemic to keep their livelihood afloat, but people like Mooney’s mom had no choice but to employ PPE and social distancing rules (as best as they could) in order to keep supporting their family and providing for their children.

Ramon Martin, a 6th grader at Hayes Bilingual, had a thought that he felt conveyed the feelings of his classmates and friends. “I finally understood what depression was. I heard a lot of adults use that word and never really thought about it but I looked up what it meant on my iPad. That is what we all felt, We were locked inside our houses and couldn’t see each other. I wanted to be outside but for those first few months we couldn’t leave the house”, he says. 

Ramon admits to being a sort of homebody, like a lot of teenage boys can be when they discover video games. “I understood there was a difference between being told to go outside and get fresh air instead of being let outside to get fresh air,” he says. 

The beginning of the 2021 school year signaled something new for the kids. They were finally able to go back to school, albeit under the threat of contracting the delta variant. Parents were at their wits’ end but felt very reticent of having kids return to school. ‘We wear our masks, even though they are annoying and I can’t breathe through them. I wear them so I don’t get the delta,” Raul tells me. “I was very sad about being at home and am glad I got to come back to school. As long as I keep the mask on, I think I should be ok. I know kids keep them on better than adults do,” he says. 

What about the teachers? There is certainly a heavy amount of uncertainty in them at this time and the kids definitely see it. “I can tell my teacher is a little distracted. She seems to forget what she is talking about mid-sentence more often than she used to,” says Camila Torres, a 7th grader at Milwaukee School of Languages. “I know enough to be able to say that teachers are not getting paid enough to come back to school, and I feel they kind of rushed sending us back,” she adds. Indeed, many feel that kids were preemptively sent back to school and would like to continue virtual learning. 

What about the kids that graduated in 2020? “It didn’t feel like a graduation at all. I basically stood on my lawn and had people drive by and yell their congratulations from their car windows. My parents were proud of me, and I was glad to finish with honors but the whole thing just kind of felt half baked,” says Robert Holden, who graduated from North Division High School last year.

There is a mixed reaction amongst kids but sending them back to school felt like a sacrifice to the economy, rather than what would be best for them. Kids were in danger of contracting Covid and bringing it back home and possibly spreading it to loved ones. “I’m glad to be back. I just hope my family will be ok,” concluded Ramon. 

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