‘Just Overwhelmed’: When a School Restarts but Students Can’t

When Joanna finally answered one of our phone calls, she told us, “I keep meaning to get back to you, but I just keep falling asleep.” She wasn’t doing well. Early in the pandemic, her dad had lost his job in the oil fields of Odessa when the virus caused the economy there to collapse, and she had taken her first job at a smoothie shop to help pay her car loan. So like nearly half of the students in the school, Joanna had chosen to stay remote, in part so she could continue to work during school hours, even after the school reopened. Soon, her class work began piling up.

Now Joanna was skipping marching band practice, something she used to love. She had largely stopped working. She was failing three classes. And all she wanted to do was stay in her room.

Naomi Fuentes, a teacher at Odessa High, heard stories like Joanna’s nearly every day. “I’m going through a really bad depression phase right now,” one of them told her, via a Google form she would send around asking her students to report on how they were doing. Others wrote: “I’ve just been feeling so mentally and emotionally tired”; “I feel just overwhelmed and like I ruined my chances of graduating on time”; “Didn’t feel like getting out of bed today but still did.” She didn’t know what to do. Even the students she used to rely on, the ones who had always held themselves together, were struggling.

And instead of creating opportunities for support and solidarity, the pandemic managed to turn people against one another. After a member of the marching band tested positive, dozens of students in the band were required to go into quarantine, causing some to miss their last opportunity to play together as seniors. Parents were angry. The school nurses were exhausted. And the student in question was cyberbullied by former friends. She doesn’t talk to anyone in the band anymore. Like Joanna, she doesn’t see the point of those social interactions now.

It turns out that, in many ways, this pain was the story of Odessa’s reopening. Instead of telling the story of reconnection that comes with reopening, we produced a portrait of isolation and resilience as the school, and the community, struggled under the weight of the pandemic. The last episode of our four-part series, “Odessa,” which was also produced by Sindhu Gnanasambandan and Soraya Shockley and edited by Liz O. Baylen and Lisa Tobin, is available today.


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