Survival kits ease return to high school

Survival kits ease return to high school

Members of the PTO at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Pawtucket made these “survival kits” for the freshmen class on their first day of in-person learning last week, which included pens, pads of paper, water bottles, snacks, and more.  

PAWTUCKET – After learning virtually for almost an entire school year, Olivia McNichols, a freshman at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Pawtucket, said it’s been much better being able to attend in-person classes and she feels less frustrated and drained at the end of the school day.

“It’s been very, very beneficial,” she told The Breeze. “Distance learning has been very, very hard, especially on my mental health.”

Last week, starting on Tuesday, March 30, high school students in Pawtucket who wished to do so were allowed to attend in-person classes for the first time all school year. While there are still some students choosing to virtually learn full-time, students who are back in school are following a hybrid schedule, with half the class attending Tuesdays and Thursdays and the other half going Wednesdays and Fridays. On the days they’re not in school, students are virtually learning, and Monday is a distance learning day for all.

To ease the stress and provide support for the freshmen who were entering JMW for the first time last week, the school’s PTO created and distributed 60 “survival kits,” bags filled with items they might have forgotten in their excitement to head to school, according to the organizers, including pens and pencils, pads of paper, hand sanitizer, water bottles, granola bars, and more.

“We really wanted to come together for the freshmen,” Ben Mayers, president of the PTO and father of freshman Gianna Mayers, told The Breeze. “A lot of these students haven’t been in school since (March) of last year.”

Stephanie Baxter, secretary of the PTO, agreed, saying that parents and teachers on the PTO “have been so happy to see many of our kids return to school. Last year we rallied around our seniors, but we were most concerned now for our freshmen who had not been inside their high school since the auditions or open house in 2019.”

Mayers noted that for a lot of freshmen, this year is a big transition year and normally students make a lot of relationships when they’re in person and seeing peers not just in classes but before and after school and at lunch. “They didn’t really get that (with distance learning),” he said.

His daughter, Gianna, agreed, telling The Breeze that with only time for classes and lacking the informal conversations that happen naturally at school, “online it was hard to make friends or talk to anyone.”

Gianna and McNichols, both of Pawtucket, said they appreciated the survival kits the PTO gave them. “I thought it was really, really sweet,” McNichols said, while Gianna added, “They are really nice and useful.”

Ben and Baxter’s husband, John Baxter, dropped the kits off at the school last Monday so staff could distribute them to students.

Baxter said they have had “great feedback from parents” on the kits. “It felt great to do something, even if it was smaller than we hoped,” she said. Without being able to host their normal fundraisers due to the pandemic, she said their funds are lower than normal this year.

In one of the virtual PTO meetings, members discussed what students might be stressed about with returning to school and heard that some freshmen were concerned about getting lost in the building. Teacher Jason Marchetti hosted a video tour for them prior to their return, she said. “He eased fears ahead of time.”

While the PTO is focused on the freshmen class at the moment, Baxter and Ben said they will turn their attention to the seniors soon but don’t have concrete plans yet. While the PTO had just three members for a long time, Ben said they have approximately 70 people they contact and 20 active members right now.

“Over the years we’re pretty proud of the ways we’ve been able to support teachers and students,” Baxter said. Last week they also teamed up with Ricardo Pimentel, director of JMW, to provide teachers with coffee and pastries. “We’ll continue to do some of that throughout the year,” Baxter said.

Students at Shea and Tolman also returned last week, with Shea Principal Jacqueline Ash noting that approximately 400 students returned. “It was quiet but an exciting quiet,” she said.

She noted that she feels bad for the students, especially the seniors since it’s their last year and the freshmen who haven’t had the opportunity to experience events such as pep rallies and assemblies where they can build camaraderie.

“Absolutely,” she said when asked if she’s happy that at least some of the students are back. “There’s nothing like seeing the kids ... I think I smiled all day long (the first day).”

She said that the staff deserves kudos for going above and beyond, and her message to students is to take everything one day at a time and “don’t forget that Shea is here” for any type of concerns.

‘I’m a lot calmer’

McNichols, who attended Slater Middle School last year, said she’s always considered herself a good student, earning straight-As, but found herself struggling academically with distance learning. “There were moments this year when I struggled and would get really upset,” she said, but through it all her teachers have been supportive and understanding.

Math in particular was one of the classes giving McNichols grief online but just being in school for a couple of days has already helped, she said, since her teacher is able to sit down and explain things. With online learning, “in a way, a lot of it was having to teach yourself,” she said. “At the end of the day (the teachers are) not there teaching it to you.”

Now that she’s able to be in school, “I feel like I’m a lot calmer,” she said. “I’m really glad we’re back. … I hope in the future I get to spend more days at school.”

For Gianna, who attended Saint Teresa School in Pawtucket before starting high school, distance learning was pretty stressful and there was more social anxiety around being online. While the first day at school was a little nerve-racking, she said, “It was actually pretty fun being back at school … to see teachers face-to-face.”

Socially, McNichols said, she was worried about making friends but was able to meet people through her online classes, and they have texted and had “big group calls” throughout the year. Finally getting to be with them all in person at school, “I don’t think I’ve felt that happy in a really long time,” she said.

Gianna Mayers, a freshman at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Pawtucket, and her father, Ben Mayers, president of the school’s PTO.
Members of the PTO at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Pawtucket made these “survival kits” for the freshmen class on their first day of in-person learning last week, which included pens, pads of paper, water bottles, snacks, and more.