Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd brought attention to the challenges teens have faced recently during last month’s Wilkes Economic Development Corp. board meeting.

Byrd said he asked a Wilkes County high school junior what the school system could do to help students be more successful during the unsettled times.

The teen’s response was that students need words of encouragement amid all the change and uncertainty.

This support is important for young people because they lack the experience and perspective needed to help them weather the ongoing unprecedented changes.

As Byrd said, “A positive word goes a long way.”

An English teacher at Wilkes Central High School and an East Wilkes High School counselor shared related insight when contacted later. Wilkes Central’s Brandy Sappington and East Wilkes High’s Bethaney Hamby agreed with Byrd.

Hamby urged parents and adults to engage in encouraging conversation with young people and be empathetic listeners. “Students can become frustrated if they are constantly having to talk about school work or chores in the home…. Ask about what is going on with the student. Talk about thoughts, feelings or questions.”

Encourage students by helping them look past the pandemic and plan for future events, she added.

Hamby noted the value of maintaining a structured schedule during remote learning and allowing time for unplugging while outdoors each day.

She said interrupted mental and physical health care; isolation and lack of appropriate interaction with peers and adults; and food instability are serious issues for many local students during the pandemic. She also cited economic, childcare and health (including COVID-19) problems at home.

Hamby and Sappington emphasized the negative impact on students of losing traditional high school milestone events and extra-curricular activities. These provide a sense of belonging and losing them reduced a sense of worth and confidence for some, said Sappington.

She said still having Spirit Weeks and student recognition boosted student body morale “and reminded us that this is just a moment in our lives, not a life sentence.”

Sappington said one of the biggest concerns for many students now is a sense of uncertainty. High school seniors, especially, wonder, “Will I be competitive? What will college look like next year? Will I be able to afford college? Will there be a job for me right after high school/college graduation?” She said these are always concerns of students, but current circumstances elevated them.

“I think the most important thing we can do for our students now is to admit that the future is uncertain, but that doesn’t mean we stop preparing for it. We adjust to a new normal and become a part of a solution, not a bigger problem.”

Sappington said she refuses to let the pandemic drain her power to teach and to learn. “I hope that we, as adults in the classroom and in the home, will continue to control the narrative and be the voice of encouragement society needs right now.”

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