School districts increase support for students during COVID-19 | News | #coronavirus | #kids. | #children | #schools

East County school districts have stepped up efforts to support student, parent and teacher mental health amidst COVID-19 pandemic.

After spending so much time in distance learning mode, teachers and families were eager to get back on campus last fall. However, the isolation induced by shut-downs has left invisible scars.

“It goes far beyond learning loss,” said Knightsen Elementary School District Superintendent Harvey Yurkovich. “We are focusing on learning loss, but addressing the social emotional needs as well. If a student is feeling isolated or depressed, or not part of the campus community, they aren’t ready to learn, so we are focusing on making sure those students are supported.”

Yurkovich noted that children – especially young children – missed out on important developmental social interaction during the 18 months of distance learning. His district has focused on conversations with teachers to keep the lines of communication open, offering counseling services, programs for ailing employees, allowing students and staff to take time to be with their families, and a full-time marriage and family therapist on the Knightsen Elementary School campus.

“It’s been a tremendous resource having that support on campus,” Yurkovich said. “We have increased training for staff to recognizing depression and anxiety, the county has been supportive, and our counselor has been critical in intervening in the moment and getting information out on how to access services.”

A recent uptick in youth suicides has highlighted the need to engage students and support mental health. While these tragic stories don’t always make the news – for many reasons, including a perceived stigma attached to suicide – Graham Wiseman hopes to increase awareness of this darker epidemic. Wiseman suffered the loss of his own son to suicide and has since dedicated his life to preventing families from suffering the way his did.

As part of his mission, Wiseman cofounded Being Well CA, an organization focused exclusively on youth mental health. His program focuses on the three legs of mental health support: students, parents and educators. It is currently under consideration by the Byron Union School District’s climate committee.

“We had proposed to the Byron District, pre COVID, that we offer a teacher training and we felt that – and we still do – that if you don’t have all three legs of mental health, you don’t have a stable base,” Wiseman said. “We start with teachers because they are critical to the success of this. Then we talk to the parents.”

Part of Wiseman’s program lets participants know it’s “OK not to be OK” and covers what vocabulary to use when addressing the stigma of mental health. Tamara Weber, a Byron school board trustee, said her passion right now is making sure the district has the tools and programs necessary to address the social emotional needs of the entire community.

“We currently have Choose Love in place,” said Weber, noting the program encourages students to model positive behaviors. “We are piloting other programs as well. I am advocating for a robust program that will address the social and emotional needs for all, because we are faced with unique challenges educating students during an endemic. Children and adults alike are dealing with a lot of social and emotional issues that cause depression and can lead to violence and suicide.”

Jim Mattison, president of the Discovery Bay Community Foundation, is working with Wiseman and the Byron District to bring Being Well CA, which aims to to reduce anxiety, depression and suicide ideation in youth into the schools. Mattison said the numbers of children contemplating suicide demand action.

“One out of four kids thinks about suicide and one out of five kids have some type of mental health issues and it’s now getting worse,” he said. “Many kids just sit at home and spend four to eight hours a day staring at their phones by themselves thinking, ‘Everyone has it better than me,’ and what does that lead to? In my opinion, this program should have been in place three years ago.”

Brentwood Union School District has also acknowledged a mental health crises and taken steps to help its students and teachers. The district used some of its one-time federal money provided during the COVID-19 pandemic to purchase additional counseling services for this school year and next.

“That money is funding people, those people are boots on the ground, onsite, directly there to support students,” said BUSD Superintendent Dana Eaton.

Eaton noted the district’s counselors share lessons connected to supporting students on Wellness Wednesdays. BUSD also contracts with Care Solace, a link given to parents to help connect them with a professional to suit their needs and insurance coverage.

“The other thing we are doing, and this is the third year, we partnered with Sandy Hook Promise,” he said, referring to the program that intends to teach youth and adults how to prevent school violence, shootings, and other harmful acts. “Through that, all of our middle schoolers receive training on ‘say something,’ an anonymous reporting tool for students to report other students or themselves who might be in a mental health crises, who might be cutting or hurting themselves, or something else like that.”

The district has also provided employee assistance for some counseling services to help them find appropriate services sooner than insurance might provide. Eaton said employee support is as critical as student support.

In Oakley Elementary Union School District (OEUSD), Superintendent Jeff Palmquist said he and his staff have adopted a more systematic approach to social emotional learning through a curriculum called Second Step. OEUSD is also using the California Healthy Kids Survey — an anonymous, confidential survey of school climate and safety, student wellness, and youth resiliency– to gather as much data as possible to focus a response.

Delta Vista Middle School is piloting a program called the Mindful Life Project, which helps staff provide mindfulness and social emotional strategies for students. The district is also partnering with Contra Costa County Health Services to provide tools and resources directly to students and their families.

“We partner with the county to provide training,” Palmquist said. “They are helping us build our capacity to train folks and provide interventions. There is site-level context on it so they can develop their own site programs.”

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