Miriam Cruz Bravo, student body president at Early College High School poses for a photo on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem’s high schoolers have a few things they’d like you to know.

They’re glad to be at school in person and able to see friends regularly, even if they’d hoped for a year that felt more normal.

They’re acutely aware that their classes while online didn’t cover much of the material they would have learned normally.

Some said they’re feeling the effects of substitute shortages and higher illness rates among staff, as well as the stress their teachers are under. Others said school is perhaps the only part of life that feels normal right now.

And most are struggling with their mental health and competing pressures to catch up academically, adjust back to a school schedule, stay healthy and come of age during a global pandemic.

As local schools grapple with severe staffing shortages and adults continue to debate how school should be held and what Covid protocols are reasonable, Salem Reporter sought interviews with the student body presidents at every high school in the Salem-Keizer School District.

We spoke with seniors Hanalicia Guerrero at Roberts, Luis Marquez Guerrero at McKay, Samuel Garces at South, Osvaldo Guzman at North and Brody Whetzel at Sprague, and junior Miriam Cruz Bravo at Early College, as well as Grace Caldwell, a McKay senior and student advisor to the school board.

Here’s what they said.

Coming back in-person

If there’s one point of consensus among the student body presidents, it’s this: online school sucked.

Whetzel, the Sprague president, said the structure of having to start class at the same time every day and seeing friends is crucial to keeping him and his classmates engaged in school.

“It’s more important to a lot of students than many understand,” he said. “The connection from student to student, that’s what makes school.”

Brody Whetzel, student body president at Sprague High School, poses for a portrait on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

While not without some hiccups, Garces he and most of his classmates at South are doing better in school now compared to last year.

“At this point I am very grateful. I did not like online, it was definitely a struggle staying motivated,” he said.

But that doesn't mean the transition back has been easy for everyone.

“It felt like the first week of school for the first six weeks,” said Marquez Guerrero on returning to McKay.

Many of the students interviewed said it’s been especially hard for high school freshmen and sophomores, who never had a “normal” year of high school, to adjust.

Miranda Lara Ruiz, 16, left, and Marina Melnychuk pick up items from their lockers at McKay High School on Thursday, September 3, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Marquez Guerrero said the school’s younger students still act like they’re in middle school at times, struggling to know when it’s time to calm down and focus on work rather than goof off, for example.

At Sprague, Whetzel and other student leaders created a mentorship program to help freshmen with the transition. About 40 juniors and seniors serve as mentors for the 90 freshmen who requested one.

Stresses with Covid, academics

Students know they covered less material in their online course than they would have during a normal school year, and many said they didn’t retain information as well, even if their grades looked good on paper.

That means they feel pressure - from teachers, other adults in their lives, and themselves - to catch up.

South Salem High School students at a Saxon Strong club meeting on Dec. 6, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Garces said there’s a unique pressure on teens now because they won’t have another chance to take a class or re-do their senior year of high school.

“Making sure you don’t mess up because you’re going to have to put your future at stake - if you fail this year, what do you do?” he said.

Combined with the academic pressure is the ongoing specter of the pandemic.

“It’s really hard on our mental health to try to keep up with school at the same time while we’re trying to stay healthy even when we’re following protocols,” Cruz Bravo said.

At Roberts, Garcia said she and some of her classmates have seen the pandemic’s impacts personally. Her father spent about a month in the hospital with a serious case of Covid in 2020. A friend’s father died from the virus.

She said knowing getting sick would mean missing more class and falling further behind is a source of stress.

“It’s a little harder,” she said.

Students from Early College High School and the Roberts Teen Parent Program graduate in August 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Most students said personal worries about getting seriously ill aren’t high on their mind, but many said they’re cognizant of not wanting to spread infection to elders, extended family or more vulnerable people in the community.

“A lot of our Latino families, we have more than one family living with us. By us not following the rules or getting sick we can affect more people in that sense,” Guzman said.

At North, he said the omicron surge and increased rates of illness among students and staff are reminding students of the shutdowns in the spring of 2020.

“Every day it’s something new - rules are being changed, we’re getting days off, sporting events are going back to a limited amount of spectators,” he said. “It’s almost like giving us PTSD from two years ago.”

Absences and substitutes

All students said they’d seen more of their classmates and teachers out sick since returning from winter break, but how much those absences impacted their education varied by school.

The student attendance rate districtwide hovered between 79% and 85% for the past week. McKay and North, the district high schools with the highest share of low-income students and students of color, have typically posted the lowest attendance rates - 61% and 64% of students were in class on Feb. 4, respectively.

Caldwell, the school board advisor and a McKay senior, said absences have been significant enough that there were 10 empty tables during a recent lunch in the school’s famously overcrowded cafeteria.

“It’s like a ghost town,” she said.

The absences have a cascading effect, where some students opt to skip school or work independently online because they know they’re just going to have a sub or their friends are all out.

Grace Caldwell, student advisor to the Salem-Keizer School Board, smiles after being sworn in at a July 13, 2021 meeting (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

“When half a school’s gone there’s probably another 10% that are gone just because their friends are gone,” she said. “There’s certain classes you come to specifically for that teacher, and when that teacher’s gone it’s going to be different.”

Caldwell said although she wants school to be in person, she wonders whether the pressure to keep school open at all costs is hurting students’ education more by causing stress for everyone. She’s seen teachers interrupt her classes asking their colleague if they’re able to sub during an upcoming period.

“You can tell they’re kind of stressed out,” she said.

Missing normal

Students said above all, they need understanding from adults in their lives and the broader Salem community that they’re living through a difficult time that has affected everyone’s mental health.

“More of a culture saying we’re all in this, we’re all struggling, we can help you,” Garces said.

Marquez Guerrero said sometimes teachers give lip service to the idea of mental health support while keeping academic pressure high.

“They’re like, ‘I understand this workload is a lot, but…’” he said.

Tuba players from the West Salem High School marching band perform at Premier Night on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Students said they want to be at school, see friends and have fun as much as they’re able.

Guzman said it’s hard when he and many classmates were looking forward to things like assemblies to have larger school events remain out of reach.

“As students, it’s a little sad to see what we hoped for the school year is fading away a little slowly,” he said.

Some seniors who have missed the regular rhythm of school dances and assemblies are still holding out hope for a normal prom. Others are just eager to finish their last classes.

“I can tell that a lot of people just want to graduate,” Caldwell said. “It’s not quite the way you want to go out.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM - We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!