LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – As districts throughout Kentucky adjust to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, school-based mental health professionals are doing what they can to ensure students, some already part of current caseloads and others recent additions, continue getting the services they need in unprecedented circumstances.
Counselors, like others who now work from home to limit the spread of COVID-19, are often turning to videoconferencing software that allows them to interact with students daily.
Some students, particularly seniors who were in the middle of their final year of high school, are stressed and anxious about spending the rest of the 2019-20 school year learning remotely.
Others in counselors’ caseloads, however, feel more comfortable working from home in familiar settings.
“A lot of my kids that do have anxiety about being at school and being around people, they’re actually doing better than the ones that are very social because they get to be home and they get to be in their safe place and they get to work on their schoolwork at their own pace,” said Miranda Burnett, a licensed clinical social worker at Bullitt County Public Schools who has a caseload of about 80 students. “They’re actually doing very well.”
“It gives me a better perspective on the things that we do need to work on when we get back in school for them to interact socially with other kids,” she added.
Bullitt County is in the first year of a five-year, $9 million Project AWARE grant meant to boost mental health services to students. Burnett and another licensed clinical social worker were hired through grant funding, and the district hopes to add another next school year.
Stephanie Porter, the district’s project director for the grant, believes the school system’s outreach efforts couldn’t have come at a more crucial moment. BCPS has established a mental health hotline, 869-HELP, that’s been well publicized for students, teachers and families.
Some Bullitt County students have taken advantage of the help line as they struggle with the sudden changes in their schooling.
Porter has seen an uptick in “extremely bright students” in high school reaching out because they’re worried about how the extended school closures have personally impacted them, such as applying for scholarships, taking Advanced Placement tests in a new online format and attending college orientations.
“Where kids would normally be in school for counselors to walk them through these steps and to hand out the scholarships and to make sure they knew how to fill them out, kids are on their own in that area now,” Porter said. “That’s just a whole other aspect of it that we see coming in with our high schoolers.”
Younger students aren’t immune to the stresses produced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jacquelyn Bainbridge, a mental health practitioner at Portland Elementary School in Jefferson County Public Schools, says she’s helped many of the roughly 20 students in her caseload with coping strategies as they wonder why their normal classes suddenly stopped. She meets with some of her students daily through Google Meet, phone calls or text messages.
Most of the parents who have reached out to her have been concerned about anxiety, she says, adding that a sense of empowerment is especially important in uncertain times.
Bainbridge finds that explaining why normal life has changed so drastically helps ease some of the tension.
“We’re staying in our houses and away from people because this will help us not spread germs,” she said. “We’re washing our hands often because this will get rid of the virus, too, and help prevent things. People are wearing facemasks because that way it can prevent it if they are sick.”
“Kids now have a purpose with what they’re doing, and that way they can better understand it and have some security,” she said.
Counselors interviewed by WDRB News also say not all of the things they’ve used at their schools are available to them in the virtual space. Bainbridge, for instance, dims the lights in her office, puts on relaxing music and begins with a mindfulness exercise with her students before they begin sessions.
She’s not able to set the tone of her sessions in such a way while students are at home, and she can’t color with them or use games like Jenga as learning points.
“It’s like an interactive piece, especially for some of them that are learning things like taking turns and accepting losing sometimes and that sort of thing, so it’s definitely different,” she said.
Bainbridge says she prefers videoconferencing to phone conversations because she feels she can keep students’ attention better if they can see her face. She can also lead them through exercises like yoga to help them relieve stress.
Staying connected with at-risk students, some of whom live in unstable environments or lack access to digital resources, is also a worry for mental health professionals during distance learning.
As a mental health consultant for Oldham County Schools, Jill Canuel coordinates services for South Oldham High, South Oldham Middle, Kenwood Station Elementary and Camden Station Elementary schools. She connects students with outside providers as part of her job, and she’s heard from families worried about anxiety and behavioral issues.
But those she’s not hearing from concern her most.
“When all this started just as a team, I think everyone came up with kind of their list of kids that they were very concerned about, whether they were kids that it was anxiety or depression or maybe they have a history of suicidal ideation or an attempt or a lot of grief,” Canuel said.
“Those seem to be the big themes just in our district that we really are focusing on, and so we’re just really wanting to make sure we’re staying connected with those families and those kids, and there are some kids that we’ve not been able to get in touch with.”
It’s not just the students some worry about.
“It’s always going to be a concern in my eyes if we can’t get in touch with certain kids just because the risk of abuse rises when there’s higher stress levels, when there’s financial issues in the home,” Burnett said.
Districts are taking steps to reconnect with those students, mostly through checking in with them directly at their homes.
Porter says that’s the approach Bullitt County is taking if kids miss counseling sessions or haven’t turned in schoolwork. Staff has been directed to practice social distancing on such visits, she said.
“A lot of times you’re going to find parents who maybe didn’t know how all of this was supposed to work even though it’s been made pretty clear,” Porter said. “There’s always that drop in communication from people that maybe don’t have access to social media or parents who aren’t real savvy in that area.”
“You’re definitely always going to have somebody fall through the cracks, but with the systems that we have in place and the chain that we have of connection and collaboration, I feel like that we’ve probably been a lot less likely to miss students,” she added.
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