A Northeast Kingdom principal on angry parents, frustrated children and personal hardship
For two years, teachers and school staff have managed rapidly changing COVID protocols. In a series airing all week, independent producer Erica Heilman talks with teachers, administrators and staff in the Northeast Kingdom. In this story, Erica speaks with Elaine Collins, principal at Newport City Elementary School, about the pervasive stress of teaching kids through a pandemic, and the changing role that schools are playing in our children's lives.
Elaine Collins: "Living in this sort of toxically stressful environment, as a world, has impacted our own ability to regulate and children's ability to regulate. And that has made the work much more difficult. But it's more than that. Because regular life has just continued on, right?
"So we all have various times in our lives when things are more stressful than others. We've had staff members who have lost family members, who have lost relationships. And that happens during normal times. It's compounded when you're already stressed by a pandemic.
"My own life, we were getting ready to reopen schools from the shutdown, August 13. My husband had a stroke. And it was a significant stroke. So I was in Zoom meetings from the hospital... trying to organize structures around guidance for COVID mitigation strategies that kept changing on a daily basis, while I'm in the hospital with him trying to navigate all of this. So in my own life, stress mitigation has been very difficult.
"And the system deserves a joyful leader. So I give myself a pep talk every morning on my way into work. But as the case counts have risen, and fallen, and as the stress levels of parents and community members... and you know that from helping the nurse to deal with parents who are, you know, calling up and yelling at her because she's saying that their child has got some COVID symptoms, and they need to go home.
"I had a message from a parent the other day, who was just so over the testing. And he called, you know, we have Test at Home. So there was a positive case, we notified parents, we sent out our message. He called the next morning and said, ‘I am not frickin' testing my kid anymore. I have frickin' tested my kid 10,000 times since this whole frickin' pandemic came out. I am not freaking doing it. If you want to frickin' test my kid at school, go ahead and do it. If this is not 110% clear, you can call me back.’ So I listened to the message. And I think, ‘That's a hard pass. I'm good. I don't need to talk with him.'
"So you know, and I understand why he's irritated, right? You know, my husband and I had six children at home. If I were testing all of my kids, every day, that would be a lot to add to my daily routine. I understand that people are just, they have pandemic fatigue. They're done with it, right. They don't want to do it anymore."
"He called the next morning and said, ‘I am not frickin' testing my kid anymore. I have frickin' tested my kid 10,000 times since this whole frickin' pandemic came out. I am not freaking doing it. If you want to frickin' test my kid at school, go ahead and do it.'"
Erica: "What is the role of school in kids’ lives today, and how has COVID shone a light on... how it's changed or maybe expanded?"
Elaine Collins: "I think when we started to see that shift from poverty being the most influential mitigating factor in kids’ lives to trauma — that was the shift, that we started to see the need to provide more mental health services in schools, the need to provide more wraparound services for students and their families in schools.
"And as each successive year goes on, we have more and more of a need to do that, especially as community resources become depleted. And we don't have, you know, in our little kingdom, Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, we have really depleted mental health services in our area. And so who's going to provide those services if it's not the school? Nobody. So we take on that role."
"When we're busy, trying to mitigate kids' mental health needs or social health needs, that takes away from our ability to concentrate on academic needs. We have to do that because no one else is doing it."
Erica: "Is that right? I mean... right or wrong, you say that, so that's just a foregone conclusion. Because that's what has to happen, because that's what kids need. But when does the apple cart just, it's just filled up with too many apples and you just can't do all those things?"
Elaine Collins: "Yeah, I would say that really interferes with our ability to concentrate on our true mission, right. And our true mission is to educate children. When we're busy, trying to mitigate kids' mental health needs or social health needs — that takes away from our ability to concentrate on academic needs. We have to do that because no one else is doing it.
"And if we don't have that in our school, kids can't learn. We have to do those things whether it's right or not, whether it's our responsibility or not. We have to do that because no one else is going to."