COVID and mental health: Schools finding ways to address needs of students and staff - CS Alliance

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COVID and mental health: Schools finding ways to address needs of students and staff

Originally published on
by Kerri Tallman

NEW BEDFORD — Despite arguing over which learning model is “right” or “wrong” for their children, parents, teachers and administration can all agree that each model is taking a toll on the mental health of both students and staff.

The three main models that schools across the nation have been following include complete remote, hybrid, and complete in-person. Depending on what best suited their schools, districts made a decision on a general model and adjusted smaller details, submitting their reopening plans to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

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In-Person: Catholic Schools

The Diocese of Fall River oversees Catholic schools that branch into the New Bedford area, including the following:

  • Bishop Stang High School
  • Holy Family Holy Name Catholic School
  • All Saints Catholic School
  • St. James/St. John School
  • St. Francis Xavier
  • St. Joseph’s School

Most, if not all, schools in the Diocese planned for a complete in-person return in September, a decision in which they are still following. At Holy Family Holy Name, Principal Deacon Peter Schutzler said that students who have been in-person across the board have had a good experience.

Schutzler, in his first year as a principal at HFHN, realized that with everyone wearing masks, no one could identify him. He could not communicate his friendliness through a smile, but rather had to rely on his eyes to express his emotions.

“People don’t recognize the impact,” he said. “The human face tells you a lot about that person.”

Schutzler has held principalships elsewhere and holds a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling. He is aware that although HFHN students seem to be doing well in the current learning model, they may be holding back. The school counselor noted the students are experiencing a different level of stress and anxiety.

HFHN offers mainly in-person learning but allows for students to remain remote if they so choose. With the post-holiday surge, Schutzler said they have seen the number of remote students double.

Although COVID-19 has limited many learning experiences, Schutzler said that all students have their own ways of coping. The school encourages quiet breaks for early learners to breathe and calm down to refocus their energy. For younger students, teachers have engaged with students as a more purposeful opportunity to check in on their social and emotional well-being. Students in grades 7 and 8 are encouraged to express the emotions and opinions that are rapidly forming as they grow. Schutzler said that he frequently checks in on students around the building and encourages teachers to do the same. As a Catholic school, prayer is a large part of the day, and it is incorporated into many activities as well as both at the beginning and end of every day.

“People are a whole lot more resilient than people realize,” Schutzler said. “They really rose to the challenge.”

For staff, he has seen an increase in the number of people who just want to sit down and talk. He said he is an open-door principal, as he is new to the building but not to the role.

“God loves ratios,” he said. “He gave us one mouth and two ears. He wants us to do a whole lot more listening.”

After taking a two-week remote break after the holidays before returning in-person, Schutzler said the majority of students were happy be back in school, as they feel a bit more normal when they’re in person.

Dr. Paul Hammerness, chief of behavioral services at Southcoast Health, said that the in-person option may work for some.

“There is no clear answer,” he said. “On one hand, kids are in school and in some ways maybe safer. In person, they receive socialization, but this socialization is not the normal typical socialization. There is discomfort, some interaction, and it may be safer with consistent contact.”

Hybrid: Public school districts

New Bedford, Acushnet, Fairhaven and Dartmouth all began the year in a hybrid model. Each model varied with in-person/remote days, cohorts and more.

After seeing the numbers rise around the holiday break, many districts debated whether to return to an in-person learning model. As a result, some districts remained remote for one to two weeks following the holidays.

NBPS follows a hybrid model of two days in person, three days remote learning in cohorts by grade. In a prepared statement, Superintendent Thomas Anderson said it is clear that the district’s hybrid model has provided students with more instructional hours than nearly any other district in Massachusetts. He stated that it has also afforded students the opportunity to engage in subjects and activities such as art, music, athletics, physical exercise and game nights, which are widely acknowledged to mitigate stress and anxiety.

More specifically, NBPS has used the power of music to its advantage. According to Dr. Kathleen Mackenzie, NBPS supervisor of clinical and behavioral services, “music is one of life’s greatest gifts,” she said in a statement. “Not only considered a universal language, but music also has the power to generate powerful emotions, activate the relaxation and healing responses in the body and prime the brain for learning.”

Jacobs Elementary was granted the Irwin M. Jacobs School Piano Lab back in 2018 as part of the Lang Lang International Music Foundations Keys of Inspiration grant. As a result, students have gravitated more toward the piano lab and other musical instruments as a way to express their emotions.

Lynn Souza, director of fine arts, said in music classes, students explore the spectrum of emotion and the musical techniques used to express them, which helps students connect with their own feelings and communicate them through their personal performance.

Although comprised of only an elementary and middle school, Acushnet has also adapted a hybrid model.

“The longer the pandemic has gone on, the more we become concerned about isolation,” wrote Acushnet Superintendent Paula Bailey. “Our students can’t socialize the way they were accustomed to prior to COVID-19. Everything has become independent, electronic and virtual. Our students are distanced even when they are in school. Years ago, Zoom was a television show and now it’s our way of life.”

Bailey said that Acushnet’s school counselors are in constant contact with all students and offer both individual and group-based services when students are in the building. Small group and virtual lessons are available for those who would like to focus on counseling, social and coping skills. They have consistent office hours for families who are struggling with issues at home. Acushnet continues to post an array of resources for families and students to access that best meet their needs.

In Fairhaven, the hybrid model consists of rotating A/B cohorts where each cohort spends a week with remote learning and a week in the building. Superintendent Robert Baldwin said the decision for this model went beyond COVID-19, as the district recognizes the risk beyond COVID of lack of nutrition, loss of learning, impact on families and social and emotional well-being.

“This decision was not made in a vacuum of just COVID,” he said. “If you’re away, the magic of school is relationships, a sense of belonging, connections, structure and discipline — all qualities human beings need.”

Baldwin said that he noticed the virtual week is not as strong as in person with the older students. However, these virtual weeks have created a positive of forming independence to get work done and collaboration between peers as they reach out to each other for virtual group projects.

Teachers in the district have been encouraged to hold a positive mindset to reflect onto the students. Even with masks on, “the eyes light up and creates positivity,” Baldwin said.

When remote, breaks and walks are encouraged. The district has attempted to safely facilitate the return of sports, connections and clubs at the secondary level, both virtually and in person. This gives students another way to connect beyond the classroom.

“As long as we’re safe, masked and following rules, COVID is a risk but so is the mental health,” Baldwin said.

Hybrid pulls from both remote learning and in-person learning, but it comes with pros and cons.

“We appreciate the desire to have them in person,” Hammerness said. “For hybrid learning, despite the good intention there, it’s like kids that live in two homes. It’s necessary and fine but not healthy.”

Remote: Charter Schools

Remote learning models have sparked the most controversy within the community. Charter schools in Greater New Bedford made the decision to be completely remote to keep students and staff safe during the pandemic, but the remote option has deeply affected them.

“It’s really wearing on staff to not see their colleagues, co-plan lessons and eat lunch together,” said Jon Fass, school counselor at Alma del Mar Charter School.

Fass said it is also difficult to not see scholars in person for the most part. Alma allowed a small group of scholars with high needs to attend in person, about 20 to 25 kids, but went fully remote when cases began to rise. “It’s hard not to see them face-to-face and form that personal connection,” he said.

Like the small group of scholars learning in person at Alma, Hammerness said that there are some kids who have more complicated needs that receive more from school than another child, such as those with learning and emotional disabilities.

“We think of kids differently based on needs,” he said. “Our role as psychiatrists is to think about the whole child, including learning disabilities and physical needs.”

According to Fass, one of the hardest parts of remote learning for the kids is not being able to physically move as much throughout the day. Normally, kids walk down the hallway, play at recess, and travel to and from school. To compensate, teachers have shared resources to stay physically active such as YouTube videos and GoNoodle, a series of web-based videos, games and activities that incorporate short bursts of physical exercise into the classroom. They also encourage students to take walks, ride a bike or any other physical activity break.

While Alma is concerned about the students’ well-being, Fass has changed his practice from focusing on personal lives of students to focusing more on executive function skills, such as work completion, time management and self-regulation.

With the pandemic, Fass has found himself in more meetings than usual. When The Standard-Times spoke to him on Tuesday, Fass said he had eight student sessions that day, one of those in person for a high-need scholar. All staff meets once per week as a team to check in. He will often meet with students and staff during lunch for check-ins to take off the strain of screen time after school.

Fass hosts a social and emotional class for 30 minutes at the beginning of every day to meet with students. He said it helps, but it would be better in person where everyone could see each other.

One thing he noticed was that student comfort levels are not as high as they are in person. For example, students had no issue verbally participating in person, but it’s a different story when the camera is on them and all focus is shifted. As Fass said, when students are learning in-person, the focus is mainly on the teacher, but it’s the other way around with virtual learning.

While the remote model may cause problems with social and emotional well-being, Fass believes that it is better than other districts’ ever-changing models as it provides consistency and some predictability.

Hammerness agreed that switching models to better suit the current climate creates issues for students.

“Uncertainty and inconsistency … neither are good for kids nor adults,” he said. “It’s particularly tough for kids to be uncertain and have worries about basic health and safety.”

Although the pandemic has forced students and educators to face many difficult obstacles, Hammerness said there are some positive takeaways in that they’ve also been forced to adapt and innovate.

“We want stability of health and approach, and we have to learn from what we’ve had to do and employ it at a more consistent level,” he said. “From the child’s side, families have reconnected over dinner, and parents are able to see kids do homework at home right in front of you. There’s a lot we can learn from this and improve.”

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