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Utica refugee family of 11 looks forward to normal school year with friends

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Note: This story is part of the fifth and final installment of Learning Curve, a year-long series of stories following a group of families whose children are attending public schools across New York state during the pandemic. Start from the beginning here.

Next year Say Kler Paw, 16, is looking forward to a “normal” graduation from Thomas R. Proctor High School in Utica, one that her entire family of 11 can attend. 

This year she won’t attend her prom given the fun-sucking pandemic rules in place and her continuing sense of caution.  

Her whole family of Karen refugees from Myanmar is hoping for a change next year when four of the seven siblings will have graduations or moving-up ceremonies: Say Kler Paw; Kler Moo K’tray Paw, 21, from SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Marcy; Klaw Moo Paw, 18, from Herkimer County Community College; and Saw Kler Kaw Htoo, 10, from sixth grade to middle school.  

But all six of the siblings who are still in school are hoping the graduations will simply be the culmination of a better year academically, socially and emotionally.  

For the youngest two members of the family, that means no masks

Utica siblings reflect on a year of remote learning
Kler Moo Paw and Say Kler Paw talk about what they dislike about remote learning during the 2020-2021 school year and what they're looking forward to.
Alex Cooper, Observer-Dispatch

“Obviously,” says Eh Moo Taw Heh, 8, who’ll be going to fourth grade next year. 

It also means no more sweaty face shields, Plexiglas barriers or social distancing. 

“I want to be close to my friends so I can talk to them much better,” says Saw Kler, 10. And he wants to be able to play with them, games like rock, paper and scissors, he adds.  

Eh Moo has a more complete list of what she’s hoping for in the next school year: Being able to bring two drawing books to school for doodling; chatting with her group of three best friends at lunchtime while eating chicken pizza and a side salad; listening to music on her computer during recess; and doing all her studying in school.  

A year of sacrifice

Her older sisters’ wish lists go a bit deeper. Kler and Say Kler said they're both hoping for freedom from the stress of the pandemic.  

Kler's grades have suffered, she acknowledges. She usually works hard to keep her grades high, she says. “But during the pandemic,” Kler confesses, “I just wanted to pass.” 

Say Kler agrees the stress has taken a toll. “I feel like ever since the pandemic started, I’ve gotten unmotivated,” she says. “I feel more anxious now, worrying about schoolwork and worrying about the pandemic.”  

From top left, Say Kler Paw, Say Kler Lweh, Klaw Moo Paw, Kler Moo Paw, Taw Heh, Khee Paw, Saw Kler Kaw Htoo, and Kler Moo Ktry Paw.
From top left, Say Kler Paw, Say Kler Lweh, Klaw Moo Paw, Kler Moo Paw, Taw Heh, Khee Paw, Saw Kler Kaw Htoo, and Kler Moo Ktry Paw.
Alex Cooper/Observer-Dispatch

Although her grade went back to school in person full time in April, Say Kler only joined them for about a month before going back to remote learning. That gives her more flexibility to help her study for her three AP exams and all her finals, although she wants to return to school for the last week or so, she says. 

More: After a tough year, schools are axing virtual learning. Some families want to stay online.

Say Kler is also hoping that getting outside more, getting more vitamin D from sunshine and being more active over the summer will make her feel more upbeat again.  

The sisters’ hopes for the next school year include doing better academically through less stress, more energy and in-person learning. Say Kler says she’s a visual learner so she’s struggled to process and remember information she hears during remote classes.   

Like both Kler and Klaw, she’s hoping for a better social life, too, noting that face masks interfere with forming connections with peers and with teachers. 

Klaw didn’t get to interact with other students during her first year in college. “So I didn’t have any new friends,” she says. 

She expects her grades to pick up along with her social life. “This year my grades dropped,” she says. “I’m hoping by this year going to classes, my grades will go up.”  

All three sister agree that the lack of motivation has been an issue they’re hoping will go away along with their face masks. Both Kler and Klaw are applying for summer internships. And Kler is taking a summer anthropology class on culture and health while hoping the collective health will improve enough by September for college culture to flourish. 

“I’m not really experiencing the college life that I want,” she says, “so I’m hoping to experience that when we go back.”  

Although Kler will graduate next June, she just transferred to SUNY Poly from Herkimer College this winter. She feels more like a freshman because she doesn’t even know her way around campus yet, she says.  

She’s also hoping that going to class on campus will enable her to complete more of her work on campus instead of at home. 

Why? Are there distractions at home? 

Kler Moo doesn’t say anything. 

But Eh Moo, the youngest sister, gives a self-aware grin. 

Amy Roth is the health and education reporter for the Observer-Dispatch. For unlimited access to her stories, please subscribe at the top of the uticaod.com homepage or activate your digital account today. Email Amy Roth at aroth@gannett.com.

More in this series

The Sepulveda family pushes through a long school year — and then COVID

After a school year like no other, Binghamton family looks to future with hope

Utica family of 11 hoping for graduations everyone can attend next year

School year's end brings more upheaval for Poughkeepsie mom, daughter: Eviction

As virtual school year ends, Santiago family decides what stays and goes

The Jansen family shares lessons from 'a long year' of remote learning

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