With the pandemic raging on for a year now, the stressors of increased isolation, economic hardships and challenges to family dynamics are wearing down on many.
For local school districts, these concerns have brought on extra efforts to address mental health among not only students, but staff and parents as well.
Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School recently approved a mental health screening service for students and staff, while Bradley Elementary District 61 has been offering counseling for some struggling parents as well as art and yoga therapy for teachers.
Kankakee School District 111 has been using a service that monitors students’ online communication for keywords indicating they might need help.
For school counselors, the impact of the pandemic on students’ mental health is palpable.
Kate Lippolt, director of counseling at BBCHS, said the ways in which counselors connect with students has changed; they no longer benefit from having a “captive audience” with all students physically present in school every day.
Now, they rely on virtual check-ins and phone calls to keep tabs on students' academic and mental well-being. Home visits for the same purpose are also more frequent, she noted.
“Home visits were few and far between in prior years, I would say,” she said. “I think the most common [reason] that we would do it in our office was related to residency checks; now, it’s more, ‘Have you got your school materials? Are you OK and safe?’ when we don’t hear from kids.”
The most common factor counselors are finding with disengaged students is that they have taken on more responsibilities at home, either working more hours to earn money for their families or helping to care for younger siblings. Others that used to be very involved with school activities and sports have picked up jobs to fill the void in their day, she added.
On the other hand, some who struggled with anxiety and school avoidance before the pandemic are finding remote school to be beneficial and are now improving in school, she said.
“This whole crazy pandemic has opened our eyes to the option that maybe we could do school differently to connect to more students,” Lippolt said.
A mental health screening service with the Ohio-based company Terrace Metrics was recently approved by the BBCHS school board.
Students and staff members will have access to a brief, online questionnaire that evaluates how they are doing emotionally. Based on the results, they will receive information and suggested videos, activities and resources to deal with their particular issues.
“We want [staff] to be aware of their mental health because that’s so important,” said BBCHS Superintendent Scott Wakeley.
He referred to the adage about airplanes: when the oxygen masks fall, place one on yourself before assisting someone else.
“If you’re sick, you can’t help the kids. Mental health is no different, and we want to make sure there’s not a stigma,” Wakeley said. “This is hard. People have lost loved ones, and it’s a scary time.”
Adults will be contacted directly by the company if their tests show red flags that they might need urgent assistance. Results from students showing warning signs will only be shared with a small team of interventionists at the school.
Teachers won’t see individual student results, but they will receive reports and suggestions if a particular subgroup of students is struggling with a certain problem. The same applies for staff; administrators won’t be able to view individual results but can see an overview of issues staff are struggling with.
Evan Tingley, director of student support services at BBCHS, said the assessment would be given in phases to ensure the school can respond to results. The plan is to start with adults. After initial rollout, students and staff will have access to the assessment at any time on any device.
“Our teachers have expressed concerns with their own mental health,” he noted. “We really want to be able to help them help themselves.”
Tingley said the data collected from students will help the school measure how mental health factors into grades and social functioning. In turn, the school can develop more targeted approaches to help with “creating resiliency.”
CARES Act funds are being used this school year in Bradley Elementary District 61 to partner with Bourbonnais counseling group Collective Balance. The district has been able to offer resources specifically for parents, including a six-week positive parenting course. The group counseling session has been used by a handful of families so far.
If the therapist decides the family needs further help, the district is able to set them up with additional family counseling using the grant funds.
Teachers have taken part in small group art and yoga therapy sessions, which will soon be extended to parents as well.
“It definitely has been a hard time for students, teachers and families,” said Rebecca Selk, the district’s curriculum and instruction coordinator. She noted teachers often neglect to take time to focus on themselves away from their families and students.
Selk said teachers screen students three times a year for behaviors related to social-emotional learning. They’ve been doing this for a few years now, and although it has been more challenging to assess students from afar this year, it has been critical to continue collecting that data, she said.
“We know it’s not perfect, but we have to keep on keeping on. This isn’t a time where, even though sometimes we’d like to press pause, we can’t,” Selk said. “We have to keep moving forward because we know there’s great learning loss; there’s great social emotional needs.”
The district has also brought on an early childhood mental health specialist this year who works specifically with preschool students and families.
School counselors and social workers have seen a greater need this year for home visits to check in with students that have disengaged, particularly among preschool through second grades, she said.
“It’s really affecting the little ones. We were created with five senses, and right now, when they are remote, they are seeing and hearing,” Selk said. “They’re not getting that hands on experience, being able to touch, smell, the hugs or high fives they receive from teachers or classmates. They crave that.”
The Kankakee school distract has have started using a program called Gaggle that analyzes student communications on school-provided Gmail and Google Drive accounts for keywords altering them to student struggles and informs school officials.
The program searches for references to drug and alcohol use, intentions of violence, pornography, bullying, hate speech and safety concerns like suicide and self harm.
Depending on the content and context, the company will email or call an administrator to address the situation. The program also provides a tip line for students to call or email to confidentially report threats of violence, bullying, peers in crisis, etc.
In addition to using a social-emotional screening service in which students report on their emotional well-being, the district also partnered with Riverside Healthcare in December to host a virtual mental health fair with information about local mental health resources and warning signs.
“Our district continues to look for interventions and programs that may benefit our students and families,” said Jennifer Herring, the district’s director of student support services, in an email.