Surveilled and Sick: The Life of American Students During COVID.

[FREE VERSION] One high school teacher breaks down how COVID exacerbated the disillusionment of young people.

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Dallas is a high school teacher in a relatively poor school district right outside Cleveland. We’ve known each other online for years, and when I started this newsletter he reached out because he wanted to highlight just how hard the pandemic has been on students and teachers mentally. But as we got to talking, we delved much deeper into conversations about how the American school system alienates people from themselves, their friends and their labor.

Chatting with Dallas was a good reminder of how interconnected all of these issues are. Whether we’re talking about mental health, schooling or labor unions, we are, in many ways, talking about the same thing: the isolation and atomization that every American experiences.

I asked Dallas how the pandemic has affected the mental health of his students.

[This as-told-to has been edited and condensed]

All the teachers have to come into the building, but all our students are doing remote learning, and they’re staying home. And that’s had a really negative impact on staff and students.

A lot of the kids, they’ve been in a room in their apartment or house since March. They get Chromebooks with codes of conduct, and if something happens on the laptop that breaks a code of conduct, it automatically alerts the school system. They can get flagged and sent to the guidance counselor. 

That opens a whole can of worms about surveillance that these kids are put under, but it’s also shown us that the number of kids who have Googled things like “depression,” “anxiety,” “suicide,” in the past year, and especially in the past few months, has gone through the roof. The guidance counselor doesn’t know how to keep up with it. 

It’s not a good system, obviously: tracking students online who are Googling depression because they don’t know where else to turn. Our school is a little under 1,000 students and has three guidance counselors—so one for every 300 students 

Many of the students are just flabbergasted by the state of the world right now and don’t know how to respond to it. You’re 16, 17, that’s already hard enough and then add in a pandemic, and the fact that their government has demonstrated not to care about them.

My students aren’t dumb—they know the live in the country that’s dealing with this the worst when it comes to COVID. And the students don’t know what to do with that information, and that really exacerbates that feeling of being left behind. Students tell me they just wake up and feel exhausted all day. They say they don’t leave the house or their room. I’ve had students come to one-on-one meetings and tell me I’m the only one they’ve spoken with in weeks. 

Though the pandemic has inflamed this isolation, Dallas was quick to point out that this isn’t a unique situation—students are isolated by the very nature of the American school system.

So much of the Western education system is not about socialization, it's not about developing humans or people who want to be part of a community. It’s mostly about replicating the labor force. It’s about reinforcing the divisions of class. And students might not use those words but they still recognize it—that this in some sense is all just to make them good workers, and it breeds apathy and makes them disheartened.

And over the last 30 years it’s gotten much worse. In the 1980’s and 90’s we suffered through this neoliberalization, this intense move to make teachers’ unions more into professional organizations than labor unions that are a base of power in our society. As that happened, we saw the inevitable: they turned the narrative 100 percent to, “teaching outcomes are 100 percent just about how much individual teachers care.” That’s how we get the narrative teachers being heroes, or so selfless. It’s to make people feel like if they care enough, you’ll be able to make students succeed. And, well, we know that’s not true. Plainly, the number one predictor of student success is material resources a student has—both in the school and the community the student belongs to.

And I see a parallel there to mental health too, where so much of the narrative is about enforcing individual biology and patterns of behavior: if you can just get the right prescription, if you just care enough about changing yourself, that you’ll be able to fix this, when it’s clear that depression and mental health issues fall along the same lines of education—access to material resources, and how well your community or society at large is functioning. 

It’s this pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps thinking that posits, “if you can get the right education, if you can use the right teaching strategy, if you can get the right pill or make the right behavior changes, then we can fix everything.” 

But there’s a reason why certain areas of the country underperform educationally, and why certain demographics are more likely to have mental health issues. The reason for both is the fundamental organization of society, which alienates people from their labor, which only teaches people to be good workers. We set students up to participate in the alienation of their own labor, and that leaves people feeling depressed.

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