GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Class may be back in session, but for many students who are taking online-only classes during the coronavirus pandemic, it feels nothing like a typical school year.
“For some kids, this doesn’t even really feel like a new school year – it doesn’t feel real because they’re not with other people,” said Stephanie Myers, child and family outpatient clinical manager at Network 180, Kent County’s community mental health authority.
As Michigan schools embrace online-only learning amid the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of students are taking virtual classes from home – away from their friends, teachers and coaches. The pandemic has left many children feeling more isolated than ever as schools try to maximize social distancing during COVID-19.
But Grand Rapids Public Schools is doing everything it can to try to curb the mental health effects of the pandemic.
The district, which is conducting online-only classes for at least the first nine weeks of the year, is ramping up its mental health and social-emotional services this fall in an effort to support students who may be struggling with a lack of face-to-face learning.
“A lot of times, with distance learning, students may feel like they’re all alone because they aren’t coming into a building every day,” said Kim Baron, director of health services for GRPS. “We want families to know that we have these services available.”
The district is expanding its efforts to help students and families handle stress, build resilience and take care of themselves during the pandemic, said Superintendent Leadriane Roby in a letter to parents announcing the increased services Tuesday, Sept. 8.
GRPS has three therapists on staff, who are typically stationed at Alger, Riverside and City High middle schools but are now available for all students in the district for virtual therapy sessions.
The district also partners with community health organizations like Network 180, Forest View and Pine Rest and can refer GRPS students who need more immediate mental health assistance.
Mental health experts are seeing increased anxiety and depression among children and adults as a result of the pandemic, Myers told MLive Tuesday.
“The most common thing I’m hearing is a lot of family stress, this is a really out-of-control situation for everybody,” she said. “Our schedules are off, there’s no respite for children or parents because we’re all stuck together.”
The lack of socialization can be really difficult for kids, Myers said – especially for younger children who really need to spend time socializing with others.
Myers said one of the key signs parents should be on the look-out for in their children is changes in behavior. Kids struggling with anxiety or depression could exhibit changes in sleep patterns, interests, or how they interact with others.
The health expert recommended that all parents talk with their kids if they’re worried about mental health issues.
“Oftentimes we’re afraid to ask people whether they’re struggling because we don’t want to put ideas in their head,” she said. “But you’re not going to make things worse by asking. It’s always better to normalize the conversation around struggling with mental health.”
GRPS is encouraging parents to contact district health experts if they notice irritable or reckless behavior, persistent sadness/withdrawal or suicidal thoughts in their children.
Parents can schedule a virtual therapy session for their students by contacting Jamal Fisher, one of the district’s three therapists, by emailing FisherJ@grps.org or calling 616-819-7050. Parents are asked to provide their student’s name, school, and the reason for the request.
In addition to mental health services, the district also provides ongoing social-emotional support for students. Social-emotional support services include teaching students soft skills, like how to build healthy peer relationships, how to communicate better and how to identify emotions.
GRPS has several staff members trained in social-emotional strategies who work with students one-on-one or in small groups to help children improve those skills, said Natasha Neal director of community student services.
Neal said mental health and social-emotional support go “hand-in-hand.”
“We could talk about identifying emotions and building positive relationships, but if you suffer from depression, some of the activities we have are not necessarily going to ‘fix you,’” Neal told MLive Tuesday.
Trained staff members can assist students with these skills through teacher referrals, or if a parent reaches out to request them. Support services are not just available to students, but to parents, too, Neal said.
“Our students don’t live in a vacuum, they’re interacting with their own families and interacting with various members of our staff so it’s important that as adults we learn these skills as well,” she said.
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