Massachusetts students will continue their return to full-time, in-person instruction during the next few weeks, and there's a new focus on the social, emotional and academic needs that come with re-entering the classroom.
Catherine De Jesus Martinez is a junior at Dorchester’s Boston International Newcomers Academy and president of her class. She said that this past Monday, she and 200 other students got their first vaccine doses. And it was a relief.
“I’m happy,” said De Jesus Martinez, 16. “And at the same time, I cannot lie — I see that some people may not feel safe. I personally do.”
As all grade levels continue to make their way back into classrooms during the next several weeks, students, teachers and staff told GBH News they do have concerns about their health and safety — and just the unknown.
"I feel a lot of anxiety,” said Tammy Johnson, who teaches math to sixth graders at Carver High School. Johnson is scheduled to return to her classroom after spring vacation on April 26.
In November, Johnson tested positive for the coronavirus and had mild symptoms. She is now fully vaccinated. Still, she worries, mostly because pool testing in her school revealed positive COVID-19 cases, resulting in three quarantined classrooms.
"I'm super nervous that this is all happening," Johnson said. "I'm trying to imagine this is with kids that are six feet apart, and I can't imagine what it's going to look like when they're three feet apart in the class.”
But the first days are always the hardest.
Robert Bardwell, executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association, is a counselor in the Monson School district in western Massachusetts. The district has 850 students in pre-K through 12, and they are already are back to school fulltime.
“This is a traumatic event," Bardwell said. "Even if you're the most well, person, mental-health wise, you have been impacted by this pandemic — and continue to be impacted.”
Bardwell said a return to a routine can be helpful.
“You want to normalize life as much as possible back to pre-COVID conditions — do things that are important that can feel fulfilling and can get you active.”
The Monson district is slated to get more than$1 million in federal funding to help support students and staff as they return to school. In fact, districts across Massachusetts will get portions of almost $2 billion through President Joe Biden’s financial rescue plan, which can be used for the next few years.
Edward Lambert, executive director Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said districts can use the money for COVID-related recovery needs.
"Certainly, those activities cover ensuring that kids are ready to learn by providing them social, emotional learning support,” Lambert said, “as well as accelerated learning and even some of the physical infrastructure needs of reopening schools."
Angelique Santomauro, a clinical coordinator and therapist in Somerville Public Schools, is already back in school. The licensed mental health counselor is fully vaccinated, and she returned to work two weeks ago. Part of her job now is easing student stress as they transition back into physical classrooms.
“Stress affects us in so many different ways — lack of sleep, changes in our schedule, changes in our routine," Santomauro said. "So those additional layers of stress also don't help the brain, you know. A stress brain doesn't learn.”
Santamauro works in small groups with students to reassure them that they’re safe.
“We're the stewards on the plane, you know what I mean?" she said. "We're just letting them know that even if there's turbulence, we're going to keep pushing the drink cart down the aisle.”
But even with the anxiety and uncertainty, for some, there is another emotion at work — excitement. De Jesus Martinez said even with social distancing, she's ready to get back to class.
“ I do I miss the people so much,” Martinez said. “Like now I can really talk to them more frequently and see what's going on in their life and how can I be more involved in it.”