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Decatur students ask school board for help with mental health

Herald & Review - 2/16/2021

Feb. 13—DECATUR — Even honor students are struggling during remote learning.

"I noticed within myself and after talking to my peers that our mental health has gone downhill since virtual learning," said Azlynn Padderatz, a junior at Eisenhower High School. "There should be a change if we're going to continue virtual learning. I decided to make a movement to encourage (the school board) to make that change."

Azlynn and some of her fellow students, as well as a couple of parents, spoke to the Decatur school board at the Feb. 9 meeting to ask them to consider ways to help students who are struggling. One of those students, Elizabeth Palagi, said she has always been an honor student yet has just failed her first class.

"I am an honors (advanced placement) student, and I can count on one hand the number of non-AP honors classes I've taken," she said. "You may not see this as a problem or concerning, and that is the problem. I'm a student who has never had a problem balancing school work, actual work, extracurriculars and my home life, and I'm drowning in work and anxiety. I cannot begin to imagine what that might feel like if I struggled during a regular school year."

Azlynn put together a petition, which drew over 273 signatures from students who joined her in asking for the district to offer help.

"Right now all I'm hoping for is lightening up the workload," Azlynn said. "After doing a student survey, almost 93% of students feel overworked and overwhelmed with amount of homework they have."

Classes have been shortened, and assignments to do on their own have increased, she said, to the point that students she spoke to are spending from two to six hours daily on school work.

She'd like to see a way to set up video conferences for students to get together to see each other, if only on a screen, just to talk, and one-on-one meetings with counselors so students could ask for the help they need. The high schools do offer sessions with counselors in the afternoons, but few students are taking advantage of it.

"Humans are social creatures," Azlynn said. "We need that interaction to feel like we're living. We've been locked in our houses. That's why I think building a platform to talk to our peers or if we need to talk to a guidance counselor we can have a separate platform for that. We're all feeling very helpless at this point."

It's not just the students feeling helpless. Parents also spoke to the school board on Tuesday about watching their children struggle, and Darren Reynolds, vice president of the Metro-Decatur Black Chamber of Commerce, said he's heard from parents as well.

"I have received a large volume of calls from parents voicing outrage that their children are not in school in Decatur," Reynolds said. "Throughout the United States there have been experiences of children having suicide and being stressed by not being able to attend school and being confined to their homes. There's no price on education. It is priceless and whatever it costs should be paid immediately to the school bus company so that our kids can return back to school right away."

The board did vote to pay Alltown Bus Service and the company has said it has an adequate number of drivers on staff now to open schools on March 22, which is the district's target date for a return to in-person learning.

In the meantime, however, the students still need each other, Azlynn said.

Mary Garrison, professor of social work at Millikin University, said the idea of a video platform, like Google Classroom or Zoom, for students to get together would undoubtedly help, but she also hopes that if the district creates that opportunity, that an adult will be available to monitor students in case some of them require more help than just a chat with friends.

"I like the thought of counselors being connected," Garrison said. "They can make sure that in the stress, anxiety, and depression they feel, (students) might need some more support. You want it to be constructive venting. Part of the issue is, honestly, we did this a year ago and though it was just until end of school year and here we are. People are feeling there's no end in sight. They have the need to connect with each other."


Class is in: These former Decatur school buildings are still in use

Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter


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