Maxwell Friedman

“I’m in the most important year of my high school career, and I’m not getting a real education,” said Maxwell Friedman, standing out front of outside Bend High School on Feb. 25 after attending classes on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

Like many teens, Maxwell Friedman has had a rough year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Friedman, a 17-year-old junior at Bend High School, worries he won’t be prepared for rigorous college courses in a couple years. He blames the stress on distance learning, which he called a “broken attempt at school.”

“I’m in the most important year of my high school career, and I’m not getting a real education,” said Friedman.

But the recent return to in-person classes has brought new concerns. What if a classmate who isn’t following safety guidelines gives Friedman COVID-19? What if he accidentally gives it to someone?

“It’s all depressing and stressful and scary,” said Friedman.

Friedman isn’t suffering alone. A nationwide survey of high school students found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, teenagers have felt more stressed about school and college. There was also a jump in teens self-reporting mental health concerns like depression and anxiety in the past year.

And according to local teens, education officials and youth counselors, many high schoolers in Bend-La Pine Schools are similarly struggling.

“I’m doing worse than normal, but I’m not epically depressed,” said Maya Gritzner, an 18-year-old Bend resident and senior at the Baker Web Academy online charter school. “But the kind of people who don’t have (mental health) resources, or weren’t prepared, they’re definitely being hit hard.”

Bend-La Pine Schools is attempting to combat this mental health crisis by recently hiring 15 to 20 new staffers, all of whom are meant to support students emotionally, said Katie Legace, the district’s director of high schools. And all school staff are being trained to help students handle trauma and anxiety, she said.

Although Bend-La Pine is confident these strategies are helping, there isn’t any way to know for sure yet, Legace said.

“We have some anecdotal information, and (students) are telling us it’s helping them,” she said. “But we don’t have data, per say. It’s too early.”

The nationwide survey of high schoolers, released in February, was conducted by NBC News and Challenge Success, an education nonprofit affiliated with Stanford University. More than 75,000 high school students from 86 high schools nationwide were interviewed multiple times between fall 2018 and fall 2020.

More than 56% of students said school-related feelings of stress had increased since the pandemic began, according to the survey. That number jumps to 63% for students who identified as women, Black or Latino.

Nearly 32% of students in fall 2020 said mental health concerns, like depression or anxiety, were a major source of stress, according to the survey. Pre-pandemic, only 26% of students reported this.

Melissa Adams, a Bend-based youth counselor, said that students’ isolation during distance learning likely increased mental health concerns for some students.

“Being less connected to their peers and teachers and school is going to be a huge contributing factor to

depression and anxiety,” she said.

This can be even trickier for students in small towns like La Pine, where there are fewer outdoor, COVID-19-safe ways to hang out with friends, said Anne-Marie Schmidt, principal of La Pine High School.

“In Bend, you can go and walk along the river,” she said. “Here, there’s a bus (to Bend), or walking to Taco Bell.”

However, Adams noted that distance learning was a balm for some students — particularly those with social anxiety, those who were bullied or those who dealt with racism at school.

“In particular, I’m hearing brown and Black kids did better, because they’re not able to be bullied online like they sometimes are in-person,” she said.

In response to increased mental health concerns, Bend-La Pine Schools staff have emphasized building connections with students, Legace said.

Each school in the district has a team of administrators, teachers, counselors, nurses and more who track each student’s engagement through measures like attendance and participation, Legace said. If a student didn’t show up for distance learning last fall, or in person learning now, the school has a procedure to reach out to families.

At La Pine High School, all students meet virtually with their teachers on Wednesdays to chat and play games, and help foster that staff-student connection, Schmidt said.

The high school’s counseling team also began hosting multiple support groups in September — virtually at first, and now in-person — and school staffers have even made home visits to struggling students.

“The intention was to show acts of kindness, and build that bridge, so kids still know that we love (them) and we’re thinking about them,” said Emily Stuckel, a La Pine High School teacher who works with students’ social and emotional needs.

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jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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