Board of Education | Many Students Push for ‘Wellness Day’ During Distance Learning

South Pasadena High School students speak out in favor of reassessment for a day to help remedy the social, physical, and mental ramifications that have come with the current learning model this school year

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | News | South Pasadena High School

41 students from South Pasadena High School vocalized their support for a designated wellness day during a special Board of Education meeting on September 18.

In what has been a difficult transition for students and faculty alike, the board-approved distance learning model, which was adopted in August, has precipitated somewhat of a backlash from those who have found the current system to be incredibly strenuous. It was of the majority opinion that night during the public comment period, that a wellness day would alleviate many of the debilitating side-effects that have been experienced only a month into the school year.

“Many people learn best in hands-on situations or being around other students, which distance learning cannot provide,” rationalized SPHS student Ginger Vieth, “It is a struggle for so many students and having one day of the week to recharge would be very beneficial.”

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Following Vieth’s comment came a deluge of requests calling for the Board’s reconsideration of a wellness day, which was originally advocated for in the considered-yet-ultimately-rejected Teacher’s Association of South Pasadena (TASP) distance-learning model — a document supported by the approval of numerous teachers. “Wellness Fridays”, as the TASP proposal terms it, would have been a day for “schoolwide activities, counselor meetings, professional development, and teacher collaboration.”

A detailed breakdown of the schedule for the day allocated 90 minutes for staff development, 30 minutes for synchronous and mandatory ‘Tiger Advisory’, 210 minutes for ‘Social-Emotional & Intervention’ — which encompasses ASB activities, meetings with counselors, and interventions —, and 90 minutes at the end of the day for ‘teacher collaboration’.

Sydney Metcalf, a Junior at SPHS, described the school year thus far as “insane and chaotic” for everyone, including faculty, students, and SPUSD staff as a whole.

While Metcalf was an initial supporter of a learning model that included the wellness day, Senior Lauren Jones admitted that she at first “didn’t see the need for it” but “after sitting at my computer from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, I really want to show my support (for) the wellness day.” She elaborated that most of the teachers typically utilize the entire 80 minutes of class, which she mostly approves, but also felt that by the end of the day she is “completely drained and don’t even remember what I learned that day.”

Speaking on behalf of Seniors also navigating through college prep, Jones continued to explain the stress induced by “sitting through college information sessions and typing personal statements. During the normal school year, I’d go to school, then do homework at the library and come home and see my family after. Now my day, my week in my life has been confined to our 800 square foot house. It’s harder to sleep from looking at screens all day.”

A common argument made by students who submitted comments, was the unhealthy aspect — both physically and mentally — of the current distance-learning system. Some had adduced the adverse effects which included social isolation, mental exhaustion, and eye-strain; byproducts of the large chunks of time spent in front of a computer screen. Students had insisted that, due to the current formatting, class time, research, and homework, has yielded uninterrupted blocks of screen time that can “last up to 5 hours.”

Research conducted has linked the sedentary lifestyle that is associated with sitting in front of a screen for extended periods of time with chronic neck and back pain, poor sleep, and impaired cognitive function — the latter of which remains an enduring, central concern amongst students and teachers. “As you probably know, most students don’t leave the house for most of the day,” said Levi Srebalus, another student. “Not getting sunshine during the day is one thing, but not being able to get it after school really takes a toll on me,” he reasons.

In July it was mandated by Governor Gavin Newsom that all schools located within counties considered high-risk for COVID spread must implement a distance-learning model. The result was the school district approving a hybrid model which administered both asynchronous and synchronous learning.

Senate Bill 98 requires 240 instructional minutes daily. This does not factor in the additional time students must set aside for things like reading course texts and completing assignments, nor does it consider the time teachers must spend preparing lectures.

Others contributed to the tally of complaints, with some worrying that there was almost no separation between school and home, an issue that students have found to be negatively affecting their concentration levels. Morgan Lee, a Junior, believes that time is necessary to “take a break from schoolwork and have a chance to seek teachers and other students for help.”

Several e-mails submitted opined that Wednesdays could just as well work as a mental-wellness day, the argument being that having a break in the middle of the week would promote productivity by giving time for teachers and students to reflect and assess both segments of the week’s lessons.

While some students remained reserved in expressing their frustration, others preferred to take the blunt route. “For years SPHS has stated that it cares about students’ stress levels and well-being. But when decisions are made that completely disregard those things, it does not feel that way,” said Paige Reynolds, a Sophomore at SPHS.

School Board President Michele Kipke, in a rare moment of uncustomary response to the public comment period, took a moment “to acknowledge and thank the the various students and teachers who provided public comment,” saying that it was “heartfelt”.

Put in a compromising position, Kipke admitted that “much of it is very difficult to hear because (of) the impact that COVID has had on our students, our families, and our teachers… I want to reassure our parents and our students, that your mental health, your physical health, your well-being, is extremely important to us.”

Kipke went on to explain that while the student’s concerns were noted, in order to meet the minimum amount of instructional time required by law, virtual learning 5 days a week, 240 minutes a day made it impractical to introduce a wellness day. “We would not be allowed to give students a day off,” she said, adding that it is was a “misperception” that it was something that the district would have the authority to do.

Before adjourning to closed session, the Board President had maintained that it was “incredibly helpful feedback.” Moving forward Kipke also suggested speaking with the newly appointed Student Board Member, Katie Hohman, in seeking solutions to the current challenges.