COVID disrupted their childhood. These North Salem students are making sure future generations will know what it was like.

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PQ Elementary students at North Salem Town Hall on May 20. (Edris Scherer)

While many of us spent the past year trying to make it through or even to forget the struggles and pain of the pandemic, a group of Pequenakonck Elementary students worked with North Salem Town Historian Susan Thompson and PQ Enrichment Specialist Dr. Michelle Sands to chronicle their unique experiences as children during COVID.

Thompson was inspired to recruit student perspectives after looking to see what artifacts had been collected during the 1918 influenza pandemic. “There was very little, and next to nothing about how young people and their families lived and coped,” she said. “I asked Dr. Sands to see if her students would help me flesh out the clinical and statistical record with personal experiences.”

Thirteen fourth and fifth-grade students worked throughout the pandemic as young historians, creating original artifacts such as photo journals, original songs, and interviews with community members to donate to the town archives. The students presented their body of work to Thompson and North Salem Town Council member Katherine Daniels in a ceremony at Town Hall on May 20.

Dr. Michelle Sands, along with students and family members at Town Hall. (Edris Scherer)

In an interview with The North Salem Post, the students shared more about what the past year has been like for them, what they’ve learned, and some unexpected benefits they’ve experienced.

“This will impact our lives way more than it will adults,” said Keller Grasinger. The pandemic’s impact on students’ social lives was particularly significant. They stressed how critical social interaction is to them, and how difficult it was to have so much of it taken away for so long.

“Some adults are missing that kids need friends and human interaction, and us not being able to see them can really affect us,” said Zachary Clarke. Isabella Ryan agreed, adding, “our grandparents always had social interaction, and we had a whole chunk of that taken out of our lives.”

Zachary Clarke's original song about COVID. (Edris Scherer)

While peer interactions took a major hit during COVID, interaction with technology shot way up. Parents may feel that their kids have become hooked on tech in the past year, but many of the PQ students expressed a frustration bordering on exasperation about the amount of technology now present in their daily lives. When asked whether COVID brought on too much tech, Ari Bursuker answered, “120% yes.”

The various learning platforms students needed to quickly learn, the passwords they needed to memorize, the classwork to be completed via computer, and the reliance on often unreliable internet connections all added up to too much. Sands said she found that when it came to using technology for school, some tech was good but too much was bad.

Dr. Michelle Sands speaks to attendees at the ceremony. (Edris Scherer)

Attending school via a hybrid model wasn’t easy, either, as Jacquelyn Moore noted. “Sometimes it was harder for adults to understand that with the hybrid schedule it was harder to focus because I was at my house,” she said. Logging on from home became infinitely harder when power outages. Sands praised the tenacity of one student who, after a transformer blew in her neighborhood, logged on for school by accessing a local Dunkin’ Donuts’ wi-fi. Her classmates agreed that losing internet is the worst, but proximity to donuts is decidedly not.

Students universally acknowledged that things weren’t all bad and in fact they learned a lot during the pandemic – about who they are, what they value and what they’re capable of. “Before this I was bad about speaking up for myself or asking for help when I needed it,” said Hazel Northshield. “I started doing a lot of things with my family and the people I love, and I started speaking up for myself.” Matthew Lehr added that while the pandemic turned his life upside down—both of his parents are frontline workers—he learned how to be more independent, and to do things he never thought he’d learn to do.

Matthew Lehr with his original artifact. (Edris Scherer)

Andrew Barnett shared that the pandemic brought him a newfound perspective on what really matters. “I learned that there are much bigger problems than my baseball game getting canceled or my Xbox not working,” he said, noting his newfound awareness that those were minor frustrations compared to the realities that others had to face, such as having to close a business or losing loved ones.

Even the process of documenting their lived experiences was illuminating for the young historians. “It helped me see that I definitely did do some fun things,” said Kate Bevan, sharing the ways she and her family got creative to stay engaged with the world while also staying safe. Both Barnett and Northshield said that creating the artifacts helped them to realize that they were not alone in their own feelings and to develop greater empathy for what others were going through.

Kate Bevan holds up the artifact she created to document her COVID experience. (Edris Scherer)

Samuel Gomez-Becerra found a greater respect for facts and science, and several students expressed disappointment at the number of adults who seemingly did not gain that same appreciation over the course of the pandemic. They felt sad about those who didn’t pay attention, wondered how some adults had turned the virus into a political fight, and wished that more adults had chosen to unite to get through this, rather than take sides.

Samuel Gomez-Becerra with his artifact. (Edris Scherer)

With the pandemic receding, Sands’ students are expressing hope. “Things are definitely getting much better,” said Northshield. Grasinger, too, holds an optimistic view. “These are years of your life,” he said. “You can’t get them back; you gotta enjoy them.”

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