Many students in Santa Cruz County feel stressed and disconnected after months of online-only school. We hear from three Aptos High students about their social and emotional well-being needs. A program administrator responds to these stories and shares tips on how adults can help. This episode is the second in Santa Cruz Local’s Distance Learning series. Transcript below.

Some takeaways

What’s working to improve student and teacher mental health?

Santa Cruz Local asked Alliance for a Healthier Generation Chief Program Officer Laurie Stradley.

  • Start with the adults because “You can’t fill a cup from an empty cup.” Teachers need to feel safe at work to say, “This piece of my life is really heavy right now and I’m struggling.”
  • Give teachers the time and place to decompress so they can handle students’ problems
  • Establish a school wellness council that is accountable to support staff and families.
  • Parents and teachers can get informed about the issues of the day that can be stressors in children’s lives, such as racial injustice, housing and food access. Prepare for tough conversations.
  • Students: Ask for help if you need it. “There is no shame in asking for help. We all need help right now.”

Santa Cruz Local’s Distance Learning Series

Our podcast series focuses on distance learning and the state of public education in Santa Cruz County. We focus on the themes we hear from you. Read the transcript or listen to the episodes.

We want to hear about your priorities and concerns with public education in Santa Cruz County. Take Santa Cruz Local’s three-minute survey. Your feedback informs this series.


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JUANA CAMPOS: Hello, I’m Juana. I’m a sophomore at Aptos High School. I’m 15, almost 16 and I live in Watsonville. And something I value is support and patience, especially right now, because I feel like that’s what everyone and every student needs.

So, my grades recently — well, the beginning of the distance learning, they were pretty good, but I felt like it was starting to go more faster and the learning and everything was just more rushed. 

I hadn’t gotten Cs and Ds, but this year I did receive a couple of Ds and Cs. And I feel like that’s because of how rushed I feel the classes have been. And if I do have questions I feel like I don’t really have that much time to ask them either. So that’s been a little difficult for me. 

And I’m making up all my missing assignments also. So I have been doing that and my grades have been recently been going up, which is good.

I just need to keep continuing to stay motivated because I feel like it’s very difficult to stay motivated, especially in these difficult times for everyone. It’s very difficult. You’re home, you have to be pretty isolated, wearing masks. You can’t really talk too much to people.

KARA MEYBERG GUZMAN: What do you want decision makers to know?

JUANA:  I would want them to know that although we’re working nonstop and we’re doing all this work, it’s not just about us doing the work and the action of doing work. It also has a lot to do with our mental health and emotional health. It plays a huge part in this. All of this it’s very, very important. 

I feel that teachers do try their best. They do understand, and they try to help us, it’s just very difficult, but we are trying our best and trying to stay healthy both physically and emotionally and taking care of ourselves.


KMG: I’m Kara Meyberg Guzman. 

This is Santa Cruz Local. 

For a year, thousands of public school students across Santa Cruz County have been stuck in online classes due to the pandemic. We’ve heard from students, parents and grandparents about the strain distance learning has caused for families. Many youth in our county feel stressed and disconnected. Some feel hopeless.

Elementary students have begun to return to a mix of in-person and online classes. This spring, many middle and high schoolers will see a similar schedule. For many families, that’s a promising change. But the pandemic has exposed a deep need for mental health services among students. That need likely will not be solved by a partial return to classrooms. 

Today we’ll hear from a health and wellness program administrator about ways to approach these needs. This episode is the second in a series about distance learning and the state of public education in Santa Cruz County. We’ll not only look at the problems, but also shine a light on what’s working. 

First, let’s hear from two more students. Juana and these students you’re about to hear are part of Aptos Community Youth Program. It’s a leadership group connected to The Episcopal Church of ​St. John the Baptist. That’s in Aptos. 

I spoke with them in December. I asked them what’s working in their schools and what’s not.

MICHELLE ZAPATA: Hi, I’m Michelle, and I go to Aptos High as well, and I’m also a sophomore. I’m 15, and I live in Freedom.

All my teachers are pretty flexible with getting extra time for any assignments that you need. None of them are really strict about that because they all understand what we’re going through.

For me, I have younger siblings and my little sister, they just tell her a certain time to come back. She’s a first grader, so I’m not sure what age they’re supposed to learn how to tell time, but it’s kind of hard because both my parents go to work and me and my brother have to do Zoom calls as well. So, I have to tell her sometimes. And sometimes I forget, so that means she misses her class. 

And it’s hard to focus with siblings because they have a hard time concentrating and sometimes they just start fighting, then it’s chaotic sometimes for me.

I am the oldest and my brother sometimes tries to help, but he forgets too because he’s in his class, focused. But yeah, it’s kind of hard. Sometimes my mom works at home, so she helps with those days.

My mom works for Santa Cruz County at a clinic. And my dad does construction. So, they’ve been working all throughout COVID.

ISAAC GARCIA: Hi, I’m Isaac Garcia, I’m also a sophomore at Aptos High School.  I’m 15, and I live in Watsonville.

I would say for me, one of the biggest challenges has been having a workspace. Right now, I’m in my tree house, which doubles as a shed so that I can have some peace and quiet because I have a family of six and we’re all virtual and all working at the same time. So I know that has exposed a big issue for a lot of people.

About grades, I just want to mention, we’re getting a lot of assignments. And the thing about distance learning is our classes are about 45 minutes long. And we’re getting the same amount of assignments, if not more, with like half the instruction from our teachers. That is a lot of stress put on us, especially because our grades matter the same as they would in a regular year. And we don’t have the usual resources that we would have at school. But our grades matter the same. And everything’s the same, it’s just online. So, I feel like that creates a lot of disparities and a lot of stress. 

I, fortunately, have been able to maintain my grades during this time. But it’s costing me. I’m not able to do some of the things that my family is doing sometimes watching movies or fun stuff that I would normally do because I’m behind a desk, behind the computer working on school.

But I would say that our school hasn’t really built in any significant rest time or wellness time for us. It’s kind of like, “Here’s a pile of work, go do it.” And you kind of have a whole day to do it. But there’s not necessarily any rest time that is involved or check-ins about how we’re doing, how up-to-date we are on our assignments. It’s just kind of a non-stop, just handing out of work. And I feel like because this is such a different year, breaks might help. Just once every two weeks, we have a makeup day where we can catch up because a lot, a lot, a lot of people are missing assignments right now just because of tech issues.

And then the train keeps on rolling and we build up assignments and we don’t have that time to really fix anything. So some built-in break time would be nice where we can just catch up on our work. 


KMG: Let’s hear from Laurie Stradley. She works for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. It’s a national health promotion organization. They work with school districts, including the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. The alliance is based in Portland, but Laurie lives in North Carolina. She’s the Chief Program Officer. 

I told Laurie about the stories I heard from Juana, Michelle, Isaac and their classmates. I asked Laurie if she knew of ways to address students’ stress ー or as Isaac put it, the train that keeps on rolling.

LAURIE STRADLEY: It’s a really difficult place. And as a parent of two virtual learners right now, it’s not just the high schoolers. It’s coming all the way through at all ages. And in those moments, I really try to think about, I didn’t have to navigate this space until grad school. 

And so listening to the students and recognizing what those workloads look like and what the wide variety of learning styles is to recognize that all students are not going to thrive in this space. 

And what we need to make sure they carry through with them is that does not make them a failure. It doesn’t mean they are unsuccessful learners. It means that we’re navigating one national crisis after another in the midst of a pandemic, and to continue to help those students see themselves as whole people, not just students. 

And so as they’re struggling through, it’s just a really difficult place. Everybody has all of these layers and regulations and pieces that they need to accomplish. And if at the core of it, we can all recognize it ー this sounds very corny ーreally recognize each other’s humanity. That we’re all going to get through this regardless of how many As and Bs and Cs and Ds we get. 

I wish that I had a better solution than that to say we know how much schoolwork they should have or how we should change the curricula. But it’s just not as simple as that. And I think it’s really showing that we have an opportunity in our education systems, to borrow the phrase from some of the education organizations, to build back better, to recognize that the pandemic didn’t actually create all of these problems, but it has definitely exacerbated them, and shown where a lot of the cracks are in how we’re supporting our students in becoming successful people. 

And academics is a huge part of that. And in order to be academically successful, we need to tune in to the whole health of these students, to the whole health of the faculty, staff, teachers, administrators, support, school nurses, school counselors, all of those folks need to be healthy and whole and well too. We were an already stressed system going into the pandemic. And until we start to make some adjustments, it’s going to be difficult to really support students. 

And I wish I had a better answer for the academic workload. But I think the advice that I would give our students, our families and our educators, is that our students come out with their self esteem intact, and their belief in their self efficacy, their knowledge that they can do this, and that these are difficult and uncertain and weird times. And that their academic success right now does not define them. 

But I can’t do anything about the homework. Even as a parent, I can’t do anything about the homework.

KMG: Do you have any advice for our students who might be listening on how to make room for self care during their busy lives right now?

LAURIE STRADLEY:  Making room for self care. It’s funny, I’ve seen a lot of memes come up from parents and all that are saying things like, I have always wished I could just be home for six months and I would get so caught up with things. 

And I think that it’s important to recognize that while we’re not physically leaving our houses in the ways that we used to, none of the stuff has gone away. We’re not sitting home alone, doing nothing. So recognizing that you have all of these opportunities, sometimes responsibilities, to try and find the nuggets of the must-dos, and balance them with the spaces of the nice-to-haves, if that makes any sense. 

And so that you can really make the most of the academic opportunities, the social opportunities that you have, and recognize that some days, it just isn’t all going to get done. And that’s OK. 

That you have to breathe. You have to move your body in whatever ways are safe and comfortable. You have to drink water and try to avoid some of the things that are preventing you from feeling well. Getting a good night’s sleep, reducing your screen time as you approach bedtime, staying connected with the services that are around you. 

Our schools continue to be incredible resources for those social health needs around housing, transportation and food access. So more people than ever need support in those places. And not to be ashamed to ask for it. Because I think that’s a huge stress on some of our students right now is their housing instability, their knowledge of where their next meal is coming from. There is no shame in asking for help. We all need help right now. Your help might be a little different than your classmates’. But whatever it is, there’s no judgment, just get the help you need. 

KMG: About 15 schools in Pajaro Valley Unified School District work with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. In Pajaro Valley schools, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation mainly works on nutrition support. They hold workshops and trainings with the district’s nutrition staff. 

They also work to strengthen the social and emotional health of school staff. 

Recently, Alliance worked with the school district to start a district wellness committee. The committee has identified staff wellness and student anxiety as top priorities.

I asked Laurie about what approaches to address student mental health are working right now. She told me ー  it all starts with the adults.

LAURIE STRADLEY: As the COVID pandemic started to take over our days, and how we think about everything now through the lens of COVID ー those social emotional skill development and the adults that support and surround children became paramount for our audiences, and for what we were developing and putting out there. 

And that took the form of a lot of social emotional health for our staff. Because we know you can’t support the social and physical well being of your students and families until you are able to find that space in yourself. 

I think the phrase that I use way too much is that you can’t fill a cup from an empty cup. So we’ve really centered well-being for the teachers, the drivers, the parents who are now co-teaching with their educators, to really think about what well-being looks like. 

And a big piece of that is talking about it. 

I heard someone say recently that this is the time of truth-telling, because if we continue to sort of ignore our social emotional health and not want to talk about our stressors, or maybe be perceived as complaining, that means that we’re just not dealing with it. 

And so the ability to say, you know, even as we were starting to introduce ourselves today, that “How are you doing?” is a bit of a loaded question, because sort of outside of this space, it’s a throwaway question. You say, “How are you doing?” and the other person says, “I’m fine,” and then you keep rolling. But if we really want to know, and we will really want to ask people, how are you doing and then sit in the discomfort with them. It’s going to crack open all of these other opportunities to care for each other and make sure that we’re getting what we need to be well, and care for other people. 

So I say all that sort of broadly. But those are the kinds of opportunities that we’re creating. We’ve had webinars and live trainings. We have flyers and content. All of those things are available for teachers, parents, administrators, to really do some self care before they look more broadly at how they can be supporting students and families.

KMG: What’s working right now? What have you found most success in, in sort of spreading the gospel of self care?

LAURIE STRADLEY: Yeah. Well, the main feedback that I hear from our program managers is creating the space. All of these adults that are managing their own stressors, their personal stress, and then carrying the weight of young people or peers or families that are also navigating this is that they need to talk about it. They need to feel comfortable and feel like at work is a safe place to say, this piece of my life is really heavy right now and I’m struggling. 

And creating that space opens up to the skill-building opportunities, which is having difficult conversations, and creating that space for relationship building, front and center. We know from the research that academic learning doesn’t happen in a place of high stress and when our stress responses are up and running. So until we have the skills to address that, to talk about it, to name things to be able to talk about ー

One of the reasons that we’re navigating racial justice in this time, for example, is that these specific events are happening. And you know, the George Floyd murder earlier in the summer, we need to be able to say those things out loud when we’re talking with our students because there are students who it is very present and central and real for. There are some students who understand it abstractly and are trying to navigate their emotions. And there are some students who are really disconnected from it. And so building those skills to be able to have difficult conversations, to be able to open space for students to process and think through current events. Those are some of the ways that are a bit like the release valve on a pressure cooker. That gives a little bit of space to let the stress go and to have a shared experience. We know that talking about it lightens the load.

Editor’s note: George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody in May after Officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck. The incident, which was caught on video, set off national protests, including in Santa Cruz County. Chauvin faces charges that include second-degree murder. 

KMG: So let’s assume that parents do find the space for, you know, the difficult conversations. Can you give us a window into what that might look like? And tips on having difficult conversations about the big stressors in children’s lives?

LAURIE STRADLEY:  So early on in the pandemic, we partnered with Kaiser Permanente and other national school health leaders to develop what we call the Back to School Playbook. And we recognize that back to school doesn’t necessarily mean physically, in four walls. But it thinks about all the components of child well-being. 

And embedded in that there’s physical health, there’s mental health, there’s social health ー so not to be confused with social emotional, but those things that are wrapped around housing and transportation and access to food ー to help districts think through what that could mean and how they can be prepared for when students are coming back and what they might need to be able to do that.

  • And so in that, part of what we’ve talked about, is developing your skills and knowledge around current events like racial injustice, how that shows up in the school day. There are some great resources from Teaching Tolerance, for example, that are really targeted at educators about how to have open conversations about things like police violence and social health disparities and housing and access to food and those sorts of things. 
  • So, being grounded in the details of the issues of the day is one of the ways that you can prepare to have difficult conversations. And that does mean that regardless of your own personal background, you need to sort of dig into really uncomfortable spaces, and get OK with that, get comfortable with being uncomfortable
  • And, and some of the other spaces that we identified there is that it’s really helpful for schools and districts to have a body of leaders or change leaders that are working through these issues. So that there is a school leadership council or wellness council that has the accountability to these areas so that they can help support staff and families. 
  • One of the ways that we talk about this is not just the individual skill building, but what are the policies and practices that support our employees in taking good care of themselves. So do they have the planning time that they need in between classes so that they can feel whole and well, so that when a student is very upset, or has a difficult moment, that they have the capacity and the resilience to then be there in the moment with that student? 

So it’s not just the skill itself with the environment that allows them to be ready and resilient. Is there a safe place in schools where teachers can go to decompress when they’ve had a heavy class period so that they know the next time it comes around that they’ll have the space to revive and refresh after a difficult conversation? 

I know it’s a lot easier to go into a conversation, when you know you’ll have the space to process it yourself afterwards. But when they’re layered one after another, they become more and more difficult because you don’t have the opportunity to take care of yourself in between. 

KMG:  Is there anything else you’d want people to know about managing stress and what’s working right now during COVID times?

LAURIE STRADLEY: I would say the thing that I know is really difficult right now is getting connected to more specific resources. If you are past the space of feeling stressed or down, and you’re moving into, you know, real depression and anxiety, and other true mental health issues, it’s no different than a broken arm or a head injury. We seek help for those things. 

And so that’s another place that your schools can often help you or your primary care doctor, or the local health clinic that can help you get to that deeper level of support you need. The only other piece that I want to make sure we think about is that there’s the interpersonal ability to talk about stress. But we’re still all these years into trying to break down the stigma of accessing mental health support. And there’s no time like the present. And that I will just keep reiterating that there’s really no difference between your brain having some chemical trouble and breaking your arm. They both need support from professionals and there’s no reason you would say, “Oh, I can’t believe I broke my arm and I’m not going to see a doctor.” Same goes for depression, anxiety and other issues that might be surfacing right now.


KMG: Are you in need of mental health services? We’ll post some local resources in the show notes. You can also call or text 211 to get connected to a provider. You can also call Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance, even if you’re not a student of Pajaro Valley Unified School District. Their number is  831-728-6445.

Anyone who is contemplating suicide or has lost someone to suicide can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)

Stay tuned for the next few episodes of this series on distance learning and the state of public education in Santa Cruz County, we’ll hear from others who are trying to address student mental health during the pandemic. 

We’ll hear about approaches that have shown promise: how they work and where they fall short.


KMG: Thank you to our Santa Cruz Local members. Our members allow our work to be free for all. 

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Thanks to Trimpot for the music.

I’m Kara Meyberg Guzman.

Thanks for listening to Santa Cruz Local.

Kara Meyberg Guzman is the CEO and co-founder of Santa Cruz Local. ​Prior to Santa Cruz Local, she served as the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s managing editor. She has a biology degree from Stanford University and lives in Santa Cruz.