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How Melrose Public Schools are addressing student, staff mental health
Wicked Local North - 3/2/2021
Mar. 2—The coronavirus has brought stress to people across the country since the pandemic began almost a year ago.
COVID-19 has changed the way people interact. Healthcare workers face high rates of burnout after working long hours facing COVID-19 head on, while thousands are forced to work or learn from their homes.
Students have been learning remotely or in hybrid models since early last year, and although there is hope on the horizon with new COVID testing programs and Gov. Charlie Baker loosening state restrictions, students in K-12 still remain depressed and unbalanced emotionally because of COVID.
COVID has changed how many live and work day-to-day, with no exception to Melrose Public Schools (MPS). Before the pandemic, MPS was able to have outside counselors come into the building during the school day to meet with students on a regular schedule. Now, like many other meetings and events, they have gone virtual, with tele-therapy becoming much more popular.
"The pandemic has really changed how the guidance counselors function during the school day," Lindsey Dobbins, administrator for Counseling and Student Services 6-12 at MPS, said. "We really don't have an opportunity to meet with students one-on-one as much as we did when students learned in-person. Counselors don't go into classes as much because we know how important it is for students to get as much academic content as possible."
Dobbins is responsible for coordinating and supervising guidance activities designed to assist students in their personal, social-emotional (SEL), and intellectual development. Her day-to-day consists of supervising and evaluating the guidance counselors, scheduling high school students, standardized testing (AP, MCAS, PSAT, ACCESS), and writing curriculum for SEL learning, among other things.
"We really had to look at the opportunities in the schedule to present as much information as possible to the largest group of students that we could," Dobbins said. "We also had to pivot to virtual meetings with students and parents, college reps, and tutors that happen during asynchronous learning times, FLEX, and after school."
The guidance staff at the middle and high school have been working on curriculum focused on SEL to deliver to both the middle and high school during their FLEX times, FOCUS Lab, and freshman seminar. This year, MPS also recreated and updated all lessons for the K-5 students SEL curriculum.
MPS has consistently worked with the Nan Project to host peer-to-peer conversations with students surrounding mental health awareness and suicide prevention, and were able to host them virtually last fall in all wellness classes with guidance counselor support. They were also able to host a virtual presentation through the Nan Project for seniors on maintaining mental health and wellbeing in the college setting.
"When COVID hit last spring, many school counseling programs in the state came together to create a Google site dedicated to mental health and well being," Dobbins said. "The site provides resources including access to webinars and professional development opportunities to support students, families, and staff during the pandemic."
This year, MPS was able to add two additional social workers, one full-time at the Hoover and a second at Horace Mann. Through the METCO grant, they were also able to add a social worker at the middle school.
The elementary school teachers begin and end each day with a community circle that includes students learning in-person and from home. This daily practice was designed to support students and intentionally teach and model Tier I (universal support for all learners) restorative practices.
The guidance counselors at the middle school reinstated a homework club that runs three days a week to help students work on self-management skills and relationship building. They also organized a learning buddy program with the National Honor Society at the high school to provide peer tutors for students who struggle academically.
The high school's admin team recently opened the learning lab where students who are struggling with their remote weeks were invited in to access their off weeks in the building. The high school also has Tinker, a social-emotional support dog, stationed there with one of the guidance counselors.
Guidance counselors in all schools, while doing these larger scale pieces, are checking in more frequently with their students than before since the pandemic they can not pull them out of classes during the students' at-home weeks.
"The high school has been so supportive during the pandemic," Ella DeCecca, Melrose High School (MHS) senior and co-class president of the senior class, said. "They've made students a priority, as well as their mental health. Even when we're not physically in school they've been reaching out and have been very supportive throughout remote learning."
Like many other students, DeCecca is stressed when she learns online, but knows she can get help from MHS 24/7, even when she is at home. She has always felt comfortable going to anyone at MHS to talk about anything, knowing any counselor, teacher, or faculty member would take the time to help her. But still, she feels learning from home is not the same.
"I know I can ask for help on my remote weeks, but it just feels different," DeCecca said. "I feel very unmotivated when learning from home, but feel like I have a lot more drive getting work done when I am physically at school."
As a senior, DeCecca is applying to colleges and preparing for her graduation from MHS. Like many, she wishes she had more time in school with her friends for her last year of high school.
"As a senior, this is my last year of high school, but it doesn't feel like it," DeCecca said. "I completely understand why remote learning needs to happen, but I lack ambition when I'm learning at home."
Though the pandemic has posed challenges with how counselors can meet with their students, they are constantly communicating both in person and virtually. At the high school, virtual college visits have been well-attended and 90% of the junior class took the PSAT at the end of January.
COVID has also affected MPS teachers and how they prepare their classroom, lesson plan, and overall where they teach their students. MPS is a partner with MA Partnership for Youth (MPY) that offers professional development on various topics including mindfulness, emotional resilience, and educator happiness.
MPS also has Jess Patti, Social Emotional Learning Instructional Specialist, who worked to create opportunities for staff to stay connected during the closure and continued some of the events during the current school year.
Despite the pandemic, MPS guidance departments have continued offering help and support to their students across all schools in the district, and are always looking for new and fun ways to continue that support.
"If any MPS student or family is in need of someone to talk to about social emotional well being, please reach out to your school principal or the student's assigned guidance counselor," Dobbins said. "We are always here to help."
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