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Incoming senior at second state Board of Education meeting urges help for fellow students

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By John Mooney

The student representative to the State Board of Education typically gets a few words at the beginning of the monthly meetings, often focusing on a specific issue of interest.

But the start of the board’s virtual meeting yesterday offered a chance for Sabrina Capoli, the newest student member and an incoming senior at Seneca High School in Tabernacle, to touch on a topic on everyone’s mind: reopening schools in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And she didn’t mince words.

Capoli, also president of her high school’s senior class, spoke of the sacrifices her generation has made over the past six months and the challenges ahead. With the help of the state’s student council association, she conducted her own survey of more than 1,000 middle and high school students across New Jersey — not exactly scientific polling but including some good advice and insights for the adults. And she talked about the mental-health toll on students that everyone will need to pay attention to as schools reopen both in buildings and remotely.

The following is a lightly edited version of her full statement:

“Thank you, Madame President and good morning, everyone.

“The New Jersey Department of Education has been committed to promoting social and emotional learning in schools in the past, but I believe that I speak on behalf of every student in New Jersey when I stress that this commitment is more important now than ever before. This pandemic has taken everything from us. For many of us, this virus has stolen precious moments from our hands that we will never get back.

‘Hard to recover’

“Teachers, staff and administrators, I call upon you to recognize that you may be able to make up for lost time in future years, but we, the students, will not. Proms, musicals, athletic seasons, graduations — gone. This will be hard to recover from in the coming school year. It is difficult to look at this year with an open mind, or heart for that matter.

“For this reason, students will need to ease back into their normal routine, while staff ensures that they are not overwhelmed with the amount of schoolwork. Along with that, many surveyed students requested academic breaks throughout the day to help reduce stress. This could go hand in hand with another type of break: mask breaks. Implementing a designated time where students can be outside without a mask may reduce the chance of those students removing it during the school day, while promoting responsible decision-making.

“Other aspects of responsible decision-making will include practicing good hygiene and social distancing. Posting song lyrics on bathroom walls that take 30 seconds to sing can help students wash their hands effectively, and purchasing decals placed six feet apart for the hallways may help encourage social distancing.

“When we return to school in the fall, this may be the first time some students will have interacted with their peers in almost six months. This separation most likely has stunted the growth students have made in important aspects of social-emotional learning, such as “social skills” and “pro-social behaviors.” In a survey I conducted that reached almost every county in New Jersey, around 79% of students reacted negatively to their online learning experience. Of that 79%, 91% of those students blamed their poor experience on lack of socialization.

“To ensure that students are getting their social “fill,” classroom or small group discussions could be prioritized in class, and even used as a learning tool, similar to a Socratic seminar or a class debate. This collaboration will also help students later in life when they enter the workforce.

‘Helping remote-only students stay connected’

“Sadly, some students, for varying reasons, may not be able to return to in-person education for the 2020-2021 school year. These students must not be forgotten. Live Zoom calls, or daily messages from staff, help foster an inclusive learning atmosphere which will help promote a sense of self-confidence and a feeling of significance for these to completely remote students.

“Other helpful resources can include guidance counselor sessions, therapy dog visits (which we have at my school and are awesome) and general awareness encouraged by staff, in terms of mental health and the available resources.

“In order to sustain the mental, social and emotional health of the young people of New Jersey, staff members — the people we rely on for guidance — will need to be proactive. A student’s mental health dictates every action they make, from the moment they wake up to the moment they fall asleep.

“The six-foot divide between us will not divide the students of New Jersey. The bonds we make in school are too strong to let spatial distance separate our hearts. This coming school year will look very different from any other, but I am excited to see where it may take us, students, staff and New Jerseyans alike.

“Thank you.”

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