BURLINGTON – Local students joined with others around the state in a virtual meeting with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to share experiences amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“What we have seen all across this country is a rise in people who are dealing with stress … things that have come up because of the isolation that people are feeling,” said Sanders. “It’s important that we talk about it.”

“Congress just passed a very large piece of legislation which is going to bring more than $1 billion into the state of Vermont for education.”

Sanders mentioned the $1 billion in federal aid coming to Vermont for education.

“What would be helpful for you and your friends? What can the state do? What can your community do? What can we do here in Washington?” the Senator asked.

Elly Bliss, a St. Johnsbury Academy student, said that isolation, both physical and mental has been hard. “Support systems are important and I had let almost all of mine fall into disrepair,” she shared.

Bliss urged people to work to keep their social support systems healthy, saying those relationships are the things “that make life worth living.”

She also said that school staff and faculty need support services after the pandemic year’s toll on everyone.

Dustin Beloin, a student at the North Country Career Center, said he has struggled with wifi at home, and said when the schools shut down, he shifted his focus to work. He said he had been a straight-A student, but not being in school in-person with teachers, he felt disconnected.

“The closure also made me lose touch with my friends,” said Beloin. He also lost his connection to the Future Farmers of America club, an organization he said is very important to him.

As Beloin was speaking about his wifi connection being poor, his audio went blank and his image froze.

“There he was talking about Broadband, and we saw what he was talking about,” said Sanders.

Beloin said he has not learned anything new in school in the past year, and said, “The past is the past, but we need to focus on now and the future and help students gained back what they missed.”

Students expressed the wish that mental health services be easier to access and to have on-campus resources with a diverse range of mental health professionals available.

“Have you been able to take advantage of mental health counseling on Zoom?” asked Sanders.

Some students told him they have not been able to receive services and are on waiting lists.

Cath Burns, a psychologist, said, “I really appreciate what you’re all saying about mental health and we need to make it accessible, it’s really important. As Sen. Sanders said, we don’t have enough therapists in the state right now, or in the country. We are doing our best right now, but there is really a lot of need.”

Sanders said the pandemic “has taught us how much we need each other as human beings, that Zoom doesn’t do it, we need to be around people. Maybe a painful lesson that we learned, it may be in the coming years is how do we create stronger communities of all kinds?”

Summer programming funds have been tripled for this year, noted Sanders. “We wanted you to be able to better socialize, and for some of you whose family may need to make some money, there may be some job opportunities, as well.”

Sanders said the government aid should help to build and guarantee “the best summer program we’ve ever had.”

Sanders said the relief package passed last week will provide “many billions of dollars” aimed at mental health and more to bring relief to those suffering. “Democracy is not all that complicated,” he said, urging students to speak to their school boards and their legislators. “We are a small state and legislators are pretty responsive to people who contact them … your voices matter, you have a right to express your point of view, especially at this time that you and your friends are living through.”

Lucas Whitaker, who attends Northeast Kingdom Learning Services and has been there throughout his junior year, said he has moved from Hazen Union to NEK Learning Services, and said he could not focus with the Zoom platform last year. His father was dying of cancer and he said he was able to be there with him at the end of his life last summer to help care for him, but the pandemic meant they had little outside support.

“My heart goes out to any students or adults who have lost a loved one at this time,” said Whitaker.

“You all have gone through a year that young people have never had to go through before,” said Sanders. “Bottom line is we’re all in this together. Let’s keep working together.”

Vermont Student Panelists featured as part of the virtual town hall meeting with Vermont high school students included: Iva Armour-Jones, Brattleboro Union High School; Hussein Amuri, Winooski High School; Dustin Beloin, North Country Career Center; Elly Bliss, St. Johnsbury Academy; Carson Gordon, Mount Anthony Union High School; Isabella Lafemina, Rutland High School; Wesley Palmer, YouthBuild; Ella Partlow, Missisquoi Valley Union High School; and Lucas Whitaker, from NEK Learning Services.

Vermont experts who participated in the virtual event included: Cath Burns, PhD, Clinical Director, Vermont’s COVID Support Line; Phyllis Currao, School Counselor, Proctor Junior/Senior High School; Holly Morehouse, Executive Director, Vermont Afterschool; Jen Olson, Work Place Learning Coordinator, Hazen Union High School; Karen Price, Director of Family Support, Vermont Family Network; and Heather Stein, MD, Community Health Centers of Burlington.

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