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Counselors: Returning to in-person learning will help struggling students

Richmond County Daily Journal - 2/15/2021

Feb. 12—Photo courtesy of Jasmine Hager

A student uses her dry-erase board in class.

Photo courtesy of Jasmine Hager

Students sit in reduced classes with desks spread far apart to achieve proper social distancing.

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ROCKINGHAM — As state officials consider a return to in-person learning, local mental health professionals say this marginal return to normalcy will be a benefit to students who have displayed worsening psychological problems while holding classes virtually.

Erin Ray, clinical director of Sandhills Alternative Academy (SAA), said they've seen triple the amount of individuals suffering from anxiety or depression visit their facility since the pandemic. Individuals who may have had mild symptoms in the past have had their symptoms resurface or have since received a diagnosis for a disorder. Ray said that, for adolescents who already struggled with social anxiety, the virtual learning may expose their home environment to peers and a magnified view of their face or body, which can have negative impacts for them emotionally, socially, and thus educationally.

Ray said they've seen an increase in compound trauma, which refers to exposure to multiple traumatic experiences the long-term impacts of those experiences, an increase in overall stress in young people, as well as an increase of abuse and neglect in the home.

Pro-social activities, such as practicing communication among their peers, have become impossible.

"This pandemic has completely halted all the outlets for our youth to engage in opportunities to move beyond their social anxiety," said Ray.

At the most recent Richmond County Board of Education meeting on Jan. 29, Dr. Wendy Jordan, director of student services for Richmond County Schools, said that there has been an increase in the number of flagged messages they're receiving from the school email system. Last school year, they had around five messages that discussed anxiety, depression or suicidal ideation. This year, they've received 118 alarming messages, an increase of 2,360%. Twenty percent of those messages involved suicidal ideation.

Isolation is a common cause of depression, which has been facilitated at a global, national and state level in order to combat COVID-19. Ray said this is directly related to the increase in suicidal ideation.

"We've also removed their access to their safe places, such as schools, recreation as well as our places of worship," said Ray.

As clinicians, Ray said that they've had to think outside the box. They may do roleplay of social interactions for their patients, but they cannot promote the application of the skills learned therapy outside of their walls.

"We can't encourage them to branch out and go sign up for soccer or softball or Scouting. Those type of things have been stopped," Ray said. "We instill hope in them that this is not going to last forever."

Better academic outcomes in-person

There has been an influx of students who have previously excelled in school, who are now suffering academically. Ray explained that for children with ADHD, doing work at home can blur the lines between study and relaxation time, making them unfocused.

According to Ray, the discussion of struggling with virtual school is a common topic among students from Richmond and Moore County. Just last week, she said a few students said they've had their grades rise a little bit just from returning to school for two days of the week. Ray said it's not a huge increase, but it's still a positive thing to hear.

The Department of Health and Human Services has given SAA a lot of flexibility to deliver their services. They've been able to engage with people through telehealth platforms, and their Intensive In-Home services.

Since the return to in-person learning was announced on Jan. 26, L.J. Bell Elementary School counselor Heather Parsons said that a few students have struggled with the anxiety of coming back. She said that kids are adaptable and resilient, and once they see how safe the school is with COVID-19 protocols in place, their worries fade away.

"Even our students that are academically challenged — they do better being here," Parsons said. "Even our (Academically or Intellectually Gifted) kids that do great and don't have to worry about their grades, you can see that they have more drive more desire to perform when they're here. They seem to raise the expectation of themselves by being here."

Parsons, along with Assistant Principal Joanna Cole and Principal Jennifer Beck at L.J. Bell, said they've focused on helping virtual students feel as if they're physically present and part of the school. Cole said that if you were just listening in on a classroom from the hallway, it would be difficult to tell which students were in the room and which were at home.

"This has highlighted the importance of establishing those relationships with students because our teachers treat all of them as if they're seated in the classroom," Cole said. "They sing 'Happy Birthday' if they're at home. It's a whole community setting even if kids aren't physically present."

Parsons said she has heard children say at school that they will never fuss about wearing a mask if they can be back at school.

Beck said that when a first-grade teacher shared the announcement that they could return to schools with her students, they exploded with excitement and cheers, exclaiming "yay, we can't wait to see you!"

Educators putting new tools to use

Karen Allen, principal at Hamlet Middle School, said the social-emotional learning (SEL) that has been taking place in the county for years has always been beneficial to students, but has been ramped up due the pandemic. It could be as little as a teacher starting a lesson plan by asking students something fun they did over the weekend, or a more structured lesson of discussing the difficulties of online learning. Through SEL, teachers can better identify students who are struggling and may need additional help from school counselors like Christina Morman at HMS.

"I think they're able to more effectively express how they're feeling, express how certain situations are affecting them," Morman said. "Especially with this pandemic, a lot of times they're not being heard. When teachers are giving those exercises and activities, they're able to voice how they feel."

The Second Step curriculum has been implemented into the social studies classes across the county. It's fundamentally SEL. They address topics such as conflict management, peer pressure, coping strategies and goal setting. Morman said that if students need additional help that is beyond a school counselor's reach, they can provide a list of local agencies in the area that can provide further assistance. SAA is included on that list of community resources.

The Say Something Anonymous Reporting Reporting System is a resource that students can use. It's an app they can get on their phone that allows them to anonymously share their struggles, and those messages are relayed to the school's safety committee.

Allen said that a student was expressing their frustrations with the pandemic and how they were feeling depressed on the app. It wasn't anything major, but the committee was able to get in touch with a counselor who help provide the student with helpful resources. Last year, there was a student who ran away from home, and a friend who was able to report it through the app.

Many students are excited about being in the classroom, but there are still some that are concerned and that is equally valid, said Morman.

Tony Spaulding, a therapist in the Intensive In-Home Service with SAA, said he's still been able to go into the home when needed to assist families, all while social distancing.

"We have a crisis intervention plan that actually has come alive, instead of being on paper," Spaulding said. "We engage the families, and they have access to us so that they have a safe place that would have normally been available through school or recreation."

Anyone can make a referral to SAA. There is a sliding fee for those who are struggling financially.

Spaulding said that the partnership with Richmond County Schools is very open. Prior to the pandemic, there were plans to have a SPARCS (structured psychotherapy for adolescents responding to chronic stress) group therapy in one of the middle schools. Children could be identified by counselors who have experienced adverse situations and could benefit from the setting.

Spaulding says that he sees the relationship being enhanced in the future because they can work together to provide services for behavioral health needs.

Faculty not immune

It's not only the students who they are helping get through the difficult transition, but faculty as well. Allen said that it's her job to make sure that everybody feels comfortable in the building and adequately address people's comfortability with handling the virus. Special accommodations, such as increased barriers from contact with students, can be arranged for faculty.

At faculty meetings, schools have also incorporated the SEL learning among staff. Workshops on relief strategies and how to resolve anxieties have been commonplace, and found their way into the classroom with children. Body stretch and mindfulness breaks have become more routine. Allen said that even a conversation about something silly, such as their favorite breakfast cereals, can lead to a real connection with a student.

Ray said it's important for people to have a sense of commonality, and that they're not experiencing fatigue from the pandemic alone. SAA wants to decrease the stigma often associated with seeking mental health services.

"Let's not hide under it — this is something that has hit us unexpectedly," Ray said. "We're all facing it together as a community. It's affecting everyone. We are all struggling with it in some shape or form."

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