BURLINGTON, March 16 – U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held a virtual town meeting Monday evening to discuss how students have experienced the social, emotional, and mental health challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nearly 500 Vermont students joined Sanders for the town meeting, which was held via video. The event was also streamed live on Sanders’ social media platforms, with more than 163,000 people tuning in.
“This year has been the worst year for our country, and maybe the world in a very, very long time. And you, the younger people of this country, have seen your lives disrupted in a way that we have never seen before. You have not been able to go to school, you’re worried about your educational futures, you have not been able to socialize with your friends, you’re worried about your parents, and you’re worried about the financial resources of your families,” said Sanders. Sanders explained that the purpose the event was to hear students’ experiences, and to get ideas from them about what their communities, the state, and Congress can do to support them.
After Sanders’ introductory remarks, each student panelist shared a statement about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The students discussed a variety of issues, including the difficulty of virtual learning; the loss of extracurricular, college, and job opportunities; loneliness, social isolation and mental health concerns; unreliable broadband; and lack of sufficient help and resources.
Iva Armour-Jones from Brattleboro High School said, “This year’s public health crisis has been detrimental at times to my mental wellbeing and to the wellbeing of a lot of people I really care about. A lot of the mental health issues that I and my peers have faced has been exacerbated, not just by the isolation and uncertainty of this time, but by the continued rigor and pace of our education and lives, with limited mental health resources available.”
Dustin Beloin from North Country Career Center spoke about the challenges he experienced with online learning. “One of the biggest struggles for me was staying connected. At home I struggled with Wi-Fi, living in rural Vermont. I have always been a straight ‘A’ student, but missing the connection to teachers took a toll on me. As a hands-on-worker, sitting behind a computer for 8 hours a day with no physical connection to teachers and classmates was really hard,” said Dustin. Colin Wesley Palmer, a YouthBuild student said, “Poor quality and glitching zoom calls interfered with my learning and the amount of time I spent on classroom assignments. It became clear that face-to-face interaction was necessary for me to have a successful learning experience.”
Many of the students commented on missing social interaction with their peers. Elly Bliss from St. Johnsbury Academy said, “The largest hurdle I’ve faced in the past year has been isolation. Support systems are important and I had almost all of mine fall into disrepair.” In addition to missing interaction at school, the students also spoke about their inability to participate in extracurricular activities, and the effect that had on their mental health and wellbeing. From performing arts to athletics, several students spoke about the importance of these activities in their overall high school experience, saying it has been difficult to be unable to pursue their passions. Isabella LaFemina from Rutland High School said, “It was an acute mental health issue for us. A lot of people were going to school six hours a day, and had nothing to look forward to after school.”
Following the students’ remarks, Sanders led the group in a discussion and answered questions from the student audience. Sanders provided information on the recently passed federal relief package, the American Rescue Plan, and explained how it will help Vermont families. Sanders explained how a significant increase in funding for mental health care and community health centers will allow Vermont to expand services, and bring needed health care workers to the state. He also discussed the $352 million in education funding that is coming to the state of Vermont to help schools safely reopen and to support the academic and emotional needs of students, including a tripling of funding for after school and summer programming. Sanders specifically asked the students for their input on what summer programs would be most beneficial to them and their friends.
The lively discussion around summer programming included ideas ranging from job opportunities, college and career counseling, virtual or in-person college fairs, community service, performance opportunities, civic engagement events, trauma education and mental health programs. The Vermont experts who joined the event were also able to provide resources and insight as to how to support students through the summer and into the school year.
Holly Morehouse, the Executive Director of Vermont Afterschool, is currently working with the state and Sanders on how to best use the new federal funds for after school and summer programming. Holly spoke about the possibility of performing arts and sports opportunities, as well as the need to continue food and nutrition programs. “This summer, with the dollars coming though, this is an opportunity to do something different and more for our teenagers. We can help teens and youth re-enter and rebuild connections with mentors and friends. Yes, it’s about jobs and learning, but it’s also about the activities and connections that feed the soul,” said Holly. “We can make summer 2021 different than anything we’ve ever imagined for young people in our state.”
Phyllis Currao, a school counselor from Proctor Junior/Senior High School, said that she and many other school counselors are willing to work over the summer and develop counseling programming for students that addresses their mental wellness and helps them assimilate back into school and social life. She encouraged the students to reach out to their school counselors, saying, “This has been an unprecedented year, and unfortunately as a school counselor, we have not been able to do our typical counseling. I’m really encouraging you to reach out to your counselor. We want to be there, we want to help. We love our students.”
Sanders ended the event by encouraging the students to continue sharing their ideas about how we can move forward and address their needs. “Your voice is important. You are the future of this country. You have the right to express your point of view, especially in this very difficult moment that you and your friends are living through,” said Sanders. “Bottom line is that we’re all in this together. Let’s keep working together, let’s rally young people to get involved and to keep giving ideas about how we can make this a great summer, which you all deserve.”
Sanders and his office will continue seeking student input on after school and summer programming, and will be working to ensure the new federal funding supports Vermont students and their families.
To watch the town hall, click here.
Vermont students who would like more information about mental health services can contact:
- COVID Support VT: https://covidsupport.org
- Vermont 2-1-1: https://www.vermont211.org/
- National Alliance on Mental Illness- Vermont: https://namivt.org/
Vermont students can learn about existing afterschool and summer programming by visiting Vermont Afterschool’s site: https://www.vermontafterschool.org/
Vermonters in crisis and seeking mental health support can contact:
- Vermont Crisis Text Line by texting “VT” to 741741
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255
Vermonters in need of assistance can reach Senator Sanders office’ by phone at 800-339-9834 or online at https://www.sanders.senate.gov/contact/.