West Philly students fight COVID isolation with photo project

Coyle recalled another question with a laugh, “And what has happened to your TV-watching?”

The exhibit evolved into a way of giving students credit for what they’ve undergone this year, said Coyle.

“There’s been a lot of talk in the media and in education about, ‘How are we gonna deal with this learning loss?’’’ he said. “I feel like they’ve traded learning about isolation and loss and real life things that we can’t quantify.”

The school’s population is mostly Black, and he says many students had family members get sick or die from COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, death rates from the virus in Black and Latino communities are about twice as high as the death rate in white communities.

“They’ve lived the experience of inequity,” he said.

Kelsey Craven, an 11th grader at West Philadelphia High School, is one of the students featured in the exhibit. She lost a few family members to COVID-19.

“A lot of people are just shutting themselves in right now,” said Craven. “It’s a fear response. Everyone’s hiding from what they can.”

West Philadelphia has also seen an uptick in gun violence this year. According to the City Controller’s Office, the area surrounding the high school has had a total of 95 victims of gun violence.

Craven has lost friends to the crisis. That combined with the isolation of the pandemic makes her feel alone and “trapped” sometimes.

“Everyone is just kinda disappearing, in one way or another,” said Craven.

But she has a solid outlet. ”I have a pretty damn good therapist,” said Craven.

She’s also rejuvenated by learning about her classmates through the gallery project. Even the little things make a difference. “I didn’t know half of them had cats,” she said.

Craven’s photos are mostly of her birds and a few places she’s been, like parks and other parts of the city.

In general, sending photos has been a routine way to check in with her friends. “It’s kind of our way of updating where we’ve been and that we’re still alive pretty much,” said Craven.

Craven explained, she will sometimes go through long periods of isolation. And in the context of the pandemic and the surrounding gun violence, when she posts a selfie on social media, part of her motivation is to send comfort to her friends: “Oh, at least you know she’s not dead.”

She believes the project will help rebuild a sense of school community, allowing people to hear voices and see faces they haven’t encountered in a while.

“A lot of us don’t talk anymore, but we’re all still here,” she said, then correcting herself, “most of us are still here.”

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