Survival kits ease return to high school

04/06/2021

PTO members at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School of Performing and Visual Arts in Pawtucket made these “survival kits” for the freshman class on their first day of face-to-face study last week, including pens, pads of paper and water bottles, snacks and more.

PAWTUCKET – After taking virtually an entire school year virtually to school, Olivia McNichols, a freshman at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School of the Performing and Visual Arts in Pawtucket, said it was much better to be able to attend classes in person, and she feels less frustrated and drained at the end of the school day.

“It was very, very useful,” she told The Breeze. “Distance learning has been very, very difficult, especially for my sanity.”

Last week, beginning Tuesday March 30th, students in Pawtucket who so chose were allowed to attend classes in person for the first time during the entire school year. While there are still some students who choose to study practically full-time, students who are back in school follow a hybrid schedule, with half of the class present on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the other half on Wednesdays and Fridays. On the days away from school, students learn virtually, and Monday is a distance learning day for everyone.

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

“We really wanted to get together for the newbies,” said Ben Mayers, president of the PTO and father of the newcomer Gianna Mayers, to The Breeze. “Many of these students haven’t been to school since (March) last year.”

PTO Secretary Stephanie Baxter agreed, saying that PTO parents and teachers “were so excited to see many of our children returning to school. Last year we gathered around our seniors, but we were most concerned now about our newbies who haven’t been to their high school since the auditions or the 2019 Open House. ”

Mayers noted that this year is a big transition year for many freshmen and students usually form many relationships when they are personal and seeing their peers not just in class 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 it was difficult to make friends or talk to someone, due to the lack of time for classes and the informal conversations that naturally happen at school.

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

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

Baxter said they had “great parenting feedback” on the kits. “It felt great doing something, even if it was smaller than we’d hoped,” she said. Unable to run her normal fundraising drives due to the pandemic, she said her donations are lower than normal this year.

In one of the PTO virtual sessions, members discussed what students might be stressed about when they return to school and heard that some freshmen were worried about getting lost in the building. Teacher Jason Marchetti hosted a video tour for her before she returned, she said. “He alleviated the fears beforehand.”

While the PTO is currently focused on the freshman class, Baxter and Ben said they will soon turn their attention to the seniors but have no specific plans yet. While the PTO had only three members for a long time, Ben said they have around 70 people to contact and currently 20 active members.

“Over the years we’ve taken great pride in the way we have helped teachers and students,” said Baxter. Last week they also teamed up with Ricardo Pimentel, the director of JMW, to provide the teachers with coffee and biscuits. “We’ll be doing some of this year round,” said Baxter.

Shea and Tolman’s students also returned last week, with Shea principal Jacqueline Ash finding that approximately 400 students have returned. “It was quiet, but an exciting calm,” she said.

She noted that she felt bad for the students, especially the seniors, since it was their last year, and for the newbies who haven’t had a chance to experience events like encouragement and gatherings where they can build camaraderie.

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

She said the staff deserve kudos for doing everything and her message to students is to take it all one day at a time and “don’t forget Shea is here” when it does concerns.

“I am much calmer”

McNichols, who attended Slater Middle School last year, said she always viewed herself as a good student who earned straight-aces but struggled academically with distance learning. “There were moments this year when I had problems and got really upset,” she said, but all of her teachers supported me and understood me.

Math, in particular, was one of the classes that caused McNichol’s grief online, but just being in school for a few days has already helped, she said, as her teacher can sit down and explain things. Learning online “had to teach yourself a lot in a way,” she said. “At the end of the day (the teachers are) not there to teach you.”

Now that she can be in school, “I feel a lot calmer,” she said. “I am really happy that we are back. … I hope that I can spend more days at school in the future. ”

For Gianna, who attended Saint Teresa School in Pawtucket before high school started, distance learning was quite stressful and there was more social anxiety about being online. While the first day of school was a little nerve-wracking, she said, “It was really fun to be back in school … seeing 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 texted and made “big group calls” all year round. Finally being with them personally at school: “I don’t think I’ve felt this happy in a long time,” she said.

Gianna Mayers, a freshman at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School of the Performing and Visual Arts in Pawtucket, and her father Ben Mayers, president of the school’s PTO.

PTO members at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School of Performing and Visual Arts in Pawtucket made these “survival kits” for the freshman class on their first day of face-to-face study last week, including pens, pads of paper and water bottles, snacks and more.