School officials: Pandemic has lingering impact on students’ mental health

  • DeBARGE

Staff Writer
Published: 10/28/2021 6:01:19 PM

Despite the return to in-person learning this school year, education and health professionals say students are still dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the hope was this school year would be ‘normal,’ and it’s not,” said Greenfield School Department Superintendent Christine DeBarge. “We’re dealing with the outcome of all of the things that students and staff experienced the last year and a half — illness itself, fear of illness, the trauma of having everything closed, potential death in immediate or extended families. … Just because school opened doesn’t mean all of those feelings just evaporated.”

The 2018 to 2019 school year marked the last “normal” school year for students since the pandemic forced the closure of schools and eventual pivot to hybrid or remote learning — a reality that professionals locally and nationwide say has greatly impacted the social and emotional well-being of students, despite the return to full-time in-person learning this fall.

“A kid who was in kindergarten that year had a normal school year,” said Meg Burch, nurse leader for the Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts. “First grade was interrupted; second grade, in our district, they would have been in a hybrid model and in other districts, remote. That kindergartner is now a third-grader. What are we asking a third-grader to do, who didn’t have kindergarten?”

Burch recalled a conversation she’d had with a local teacher who said that, in a typical year, there may be a handful of students who struggle to adapt to the classroom routine and other expectations of being a student. This year, all of her students seemed to struggle.

“I think teachers are well aware of that and working incredibly hard to meet those students where they are,” Burch said. “I’m not thinking that teachers aren’t acutely and intensely aware of the impact on their students. They’re living it everyday … and working incredibly hard to meet the needs of those students.”

Support staff openings

Sheryl Stanton, superintendent of the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts, echoed similar sentiments.

“Even some of our youngest students, who potentially have never been in school … they’re coming in with a real deficit for skills in the classroom,” Stanton said.

She said the difficulty in finding additional support staff adds to the challenge.

“We have a couple of positions that are open in terms of paraprofessionals, or even speech and language positions that are open,” Stanton said. “That’s really across the board in Western Massachusetts. We tend to have difficulty filling those positions. That’s being discussed at the statewide level.”

Burch, too, said there is a need for additional staffing in her districts, particularly in Sunderland, where there appears to be the greatest student need.

“Time away from school and its routines and structures, and the collaborative support of faculty and staff, has not been good for students,” said Victoria Palmer, a school psychologist at Sunderland Elementary School. “Kids need people around them; they need the community of adults, of their peers, of routines. We recognized that some students did not have the same access to learning during the pandemic.”

For that reason, she and her colleagues have been prepared to deal with the impact of the pandemic “since day one.”

“We are working with some outside consultants as well to ensure we are supporting student needs and addressing them exactly where they’re at,” she said.

Second Step program

Palmer said one of the advantages of the Frontier and Union 38 school districts is the emphasis placed on social and emotional learning. She described the Second Step program the school participates in, which provides universal languages for students to use that encourage self-expression and management of emotions.

“In other words, we talk about the importance of social and emotional learning as a standard throughout our schools,” she said. “It’s equally as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.”

Palmer said in general, she believes there is more awareness nationally of the need and emphasis for mental health services for both children and adults, as well as the impact the absence from structured school routines can have on students.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recently declared a national state of emergency for children’s mental health, citing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on top of other challenges.

“We see students we would be recommending for crisis evaluation, and there’s many more students now that are needing to be seen,” Stanton said. “In some cases, we’re seeking more support, whether it’s through partial hospitalization so we can stabilize students and children, and there’s not room. The wait lists are very long.”

Struggles

DeBarge also said Greenfield students are “dealing outwardly” with the symptoms of trauma.

“We have students who are speaking about their feelings in a way that suggests they’re having anxiety issues,” she said. “We have students that are showing outwardly hostile and aggressive behaviors, and we have students that are reported to have been very engaged prior and are much more quiet now.”

DeBarge said between the day-to-day struggles students already face — from poverty and illness, to death or substance use in their families — the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded that trauma.

“That results in the potential for students to have increased issues with eating, sleeping, difficulty concentrating and aggression or anger — all what we’d expect coming out of a trauma,” she said.

Marti Pomputius, a psychologist at Frontier Regional School, said of the counselors she has spoken with, every one has told her they’re dealing with a bigger case load this year than ever before.

“I, for one, just about doubled the amount of counseling that I did last year,” she said. “A lot of those students are continuing to need some support.”

Pomputius thinks students are still dealing with a considerable amount of uncertainty, despite the fact there is more predictability now.

“There’s still a lot of struggle with anxiety,” she said. “It seems like students, their lives kind of fell apart in many ways, and they put a lot of pieces of their lives back together … but they’re working hard to do their best this year.”

Building support

Pomputius said there has been an elevated need for the BRYT Program — Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition — which the district began planning for prior to the pandemic, but was only able to launch this year. The program, she explained, allows for students who have had an absence from school — whether it’s for physical or mental health reasons — to gradually return to classes.

In Greenfield, the job descriptions for two new roles — a restorative practice facilitator and a director of behavioral services — were recently approved by the School Committee, aiming to address the impact the pandemic has had on many students in the district.

Generally speaking, the director of behavioral services role, which DeBarge said interviews are just beginning for, will work to develop school counseling and therapeutic programs to meet students’ social and emotional needs.

“Our staff is really giving everything they’ve got,” she said, “but we really need to continue building on the support we have.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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