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When Joanna finally answered one of our phone calls, she told us, “I keep wanting to answer you, but I keep falling asleep.” She was not well. At the start of the pandemic, her father lost his job in the Odessa oil fields when the virus caused the economy to collapse there, and she took her first job at a smoothie store to help him pay off his car loan. So, like almost half of the students at the school, Joanna had chosen to stay away, in part so that she could continue working during school hours, even after the school reopened. Soon her classwork began to pile up.

Now Joanna was skipping the marching band practice, something she once loved. She had largely stopped working. She was failing three classes. And all she wanted to do was stay in her room.

Naomi Fuentes, a teacher at Odessa High, heard stories like Joanna’s almost every day. “I’m going through a very bad phase of depression right now,” one of them told her, via a Google form she would send to ask her students to report on their progress. Others wrote: “I felt so tired mentally and emotionally”; “I feel overwhelmed and like I wasted my chances of graduating on time”; “I didn’t feel like getting out of bed today but I did.” She didn’t know what to do. Even the students she relied on, the ones who had always stood together, struggled.

And instead of creating opportunities for support and solidarity, the pandemic has succeeded in turning people against each other. After a member of the marching band tested positive, dozens of students in the group had to self-quarantine, causing some to miss their last opportunity to perform together as seniors. The parents were angry. The school nurses were exhausted. And the student in question was bullied by old friends. She no longer speaks to anyone in the group. Like Joanna, she doesn’t see the point of these social interactions now.

It turns out that, in many ways, this pain was the story of Odessa reopening. Instead of telling the story of the reconnection that accompanies the reopening, we produced a portrait of isolation and resilience as the school and community struggled under the weight of the pandemic. The latest episode in our four-part series, “Odessa,” also produced by Sindhu Gnanasambandan and Soraya Shockley and edited by Liz O. Baylen and Lisa Tobin, is available today.



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