Portland High School senior Lydia Stein is one of the many 10th-, 11th-, and 12-graders in the city who are learning entirely remotely this year. She said it is contributing to increased anxiety and lack of motivation. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Portland High School senior Lydia Stein considered herself an overachiever back in March: a two-season athlete, a member of several clubs, and taking the hardest classes her school had to offer.

Now, more than seven months into the coronavirus pandemic and with college applications looming, Stein is trying to keep it together from home. She is one of the hundreds of Portland upperclassmen learning entirely remotely and has found it hard to stay motivated.

“I don’t have any social interactions. I have one class that we go in for labs, but the other three it’s just all up to me to do the work myself while talking to no other students, which has been really rough,” Stein said. 

According to recent surveys conducted by Portland’s high schools, the majority of city high schoolers learning remotely are facing similar difficulties. The survey included responses from 583 public high school students, 566 of their parents, and 157 staff members about the all-remote high school experience. 

Administrators are working on a plan to potentially begin offering in-person high school classes next month, but the time spent away from school has taken a toll on many students’ mental health.

Nearly 60 percent of students surveyed reported they are finding both academics and maintaining emotional wellness “more” or “much more” difficult since before remote learning began.

Lydia Stein of Portland: “So many kids don’t have sports at all, I couldn’t imagine not having that,” she said. “At least for one hour a day, I’m out of my room and outside.” (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Students said they are anxious and miss their friends, rarely unplug from technology, spend less time around other people, get less exercise, and spend less time outdoors.

A beacon of hope for Stein has been her place on the varsity soccer team, one of the state-approved sports being played with restrictions during the pandemic.

“So many kids don’t have sports at all, I couldn’t imagine not having that,” she said. “At least for one hour a day, I’m out of my room and outside.”

Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend presented the survey results to School Board members last week. More than half of Portland high schoolers said they felt the amount of in-person learning being offered this semester is “just right;” 60 percent of parents surveyed said it is too little.

An evolving plan

City high school students receive in-person learning opportunities through the district’s Learning Center model, which administrators have said they are trying to make more effective.

But disapproving high school parents have sounded off at recent School Board meetings about sophomores, juniors, and seniors seemingly being left out of the district’s reopening plans. 

At the board’s Oct. 20 meeting, administrators gave presentations on the next steps for schools citywide, and Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana recently announced that the majority of the city’s students will remain in hybrid learning until at least the end of the trimester on Dec. 4.

Portland and Deering High School students will learn remotely until at least Nov. 13, which is the end of their academic first quarter. 

Townsend last week said administrators will draft a proposal for a new high school learning program and have plans to communicate with families and launch the program next month. Few details were provided about what that program might look like. He said the School Department consulted eight nearby school districts, all of which offer in-person learning for high school students.

Townsend said if Cumberland County remains green under the state’s health rating, and Portland Public Schools finds it has adequate staffing and the necessary facilities to execute in-person high school learning, the hope is for changes to “roll out at the start of the next quarter,” which begins Nov. 16.

Rosemont Avenue resident Penelope St. Lewis has been vocal in her opposition to all-remote learning for high school students. Last week, she called trying to improve the learning center model “beating a dead horse.”

Several Portland teachers also shared their perspectives on how this academic year has gone so far.

Kathy Farrell, an educational technician at Lyman Moore Middle School, said she sympathizes with parents who might want more than what the hybrid format provides, but safety comes first.

“The health and safety protocols that are in place must stay as they are until we are clear of this crazy virus,” she said.

Jenna Mehnert, executive director of Maine’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. (Courtesy NAMI)

Impact of uncertainty, isolation

Physical safety protocols aren’t the only concern.

Jenna Mehnert, executive director in Maine of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, said the uncertainty of the pandemic paired with social isolation could lead to mental illness in teenagers.

Mehnert said she has seen her own high school-aged children display more anxious behavior since the pandemic started.

“All of this, it’s just a lot, and all of it has the potential for kids to develop anxiety disorders, to have them develop PTSD,” Mehnert said last week. “What we know about childhood trauma is it changes the wiring of the brain.”

Portland clinical psychologist Alexandra Lash, who works with adult clients, said last week that anxiety is “definitely on the rise,” both because of circumstances she called “novel” and “unparalleled,” and because people don’t have access to their typical coping mechanisms right now – things like dinner with friends or a stress-free trip out of town.

Stein echoed that and said she misses normal parts of the teenage experience like having sleepovers and going on road trips. For her 18th birthday last week, she had a few friends over for a socially distant bonfire. 

“All of the time I would be out with my friends or doing other things I’m just sitting at home on my phone,” she said.

Stein said her anxiety and mood have become worse since the beginning of the pandemic. She used to feel fine speaking up during in-person classes, but now sometimes gets so nervous before speaking in a remote class that she starts shaking.

Portland clinical psychologist Alexandra Lash. (Contributed)

Not all city high school students, of course, are finding the remote school format difficult to deal with. Deering High school junior Emily Cheung spoke positively about her remote learning experience with School Board members last week.

Cheung, who is the School Board representative for Deering High School, said she thinks the Learning Center model at Deering is going “quite well” and said she enjoys the chance to “get help from teachers, go to clubs and other opportunities” that come with it. She also likes the flexibility that remote learning brings to her life, giving her time for extracurriculars and taking classes at the University of Southern Maine.

“I might be an outlier but I think that the hybrid model at Deering is going pretty well,” Cheung said. “I think if the school was to stay in this model for the rest of the year, I would be OK with that and I know I have a lot of friends who would agree.”

While administrators in Portland said they are planning alternatives going forward, other New England school districts have returned to all-remote learning recently in the wake of increasing COVID-19 cases. 

Last week, for instance, Boston Public Schools announced all students would be going entirely remote because of a spike in local cases.

Stein, however, said she would “definitely want to go back” to some form of in-person learning if it were available this year, and believes Portland High School is big enough to host students safely. She also said she feels administrators are “just not listening” to kids who want to go back to school.

“I can’t speak for everybody but I know a lot of the students right now are feeling very ignored and hopeless that the administration that claims that they listen to our voice is completely ignoring us,” she said. 

Additionally, Stein said she feels for her fellow seniors going through the college application process with few in-school resources to help guide them. She said she is “very lucky” to have access to a private college counselor, but thinks the number of Portland students applying to college could dip due to the remote format.

“(Some students don’t) have role models at home or maybe right now have to take care of their siblings too, (and) just don’t have the time or the resources,” Stein said.

‘Go easy on yourself’

For Maine young people who are struggling emotionally during the pandemic, NAMI launched its Text Teen Support Line in April. The support line, now funded with state disaster relief money, is staffed by people under the age of 23 who have experience with anxiety. It serves individuals between the ages 14 of 20.

NAMI Maine has also transitioned two of its mental health support programs traditionally run in schools, Youth Mental Health First Aid and Sources of Strength, to virtual operation during the pandemic. The organization also runs multiple support groups for teens and adults of all ages online, including a parent support group. A full schedule can be found on the NAMI website.

Ultimately, Mehnert said the best way for parents to support their teenagers during this time is to validate what they’re going through.

“I think that the most important thing when we talk about kids and their mental health is honoring that it’s real for them,” she said. “Telling them to ‘suck it up buttercup’ or wipe it off, it’s not helpful. It just doesn’t do anybody any good.”

For people of all ages struggling to adjust to America’s “new normal,” clinical psychologist Lash said it is important to “go easy on yourself” and remember everyone is in this together.

Stein agreed and said she wants other high schoolers to know that this time is only temporary.

“That’s something I have to tell myself every day,” she said. “When I get to college hopefully, things are going to be better. It’s just one day at a time. And if we can get through every day there’s eventually going to be an end to this.”