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M Power U students focus on mental health, child care and distance learning legislation

The Hawk Eye - 3/2/2021

Mar. 2—WEST BURLINGTON — What do mental health, child care and virtual learning all have in common? They were the topics of discussion at this year's M Power U session.

Juniors from 11 area high schools in the Southeastern Community College student leadership class met Friday with Rep. Garrett Gobble (R-Ankeny), an SCC graduate who was elected this past fall.

"SCC was a big part of my life," Gobble said, explaining why he attended M Power U. "(I'm) very glad to be back and talking to some of these kids who are ready for the next step."

M Power U students typically present their legislative wish-list to legislators in Des Moines when they visit the state's Capitol building during Southeast Iowa Days, but because of COVID-19, they made their presentation at SCC, first virtually with two legislators in attendance and a second time to Gobble, a Danville native, in person.

Gobble unseated freshman Rep. Heather Matson (D-Ankeny) in a close race. At 25 years old Gobble, a teacher by trade, is the third-youngest member of the Iowa Legislature.

Carlene Woodside, who leads M Power U, said area legislators also were invited but were unable to due to a scheduling conflict.

One group of students addressed mental health issues.

"We wanted one therapist in all district, but we knew that was out of reach," said Annabelle Loveless, a student at Winfield-Mount Union High School.

Lucy Deacon, who attends Keokuk High School, said she recognizes teachers are not going to fulfill the entire duty of a mental health professional. However, she said if teachers can get enough training, they can start to learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness to get their students help when they need it.

Loveless acknowledged that suicide prevention training exists for teachers, but she pointed out that training does not encompass all mental health issues students struggle with on a daily basis. Instead, she said, mental health training should focus on a variety of topics for teachers.

Gobble said as a teacher, he has gotten one hour of suicide prevention training and agreed that it was not nearly enough.

A solution provided by the students was to work with local organizations to get students the help they need. Another idea was to provide teachers with sample prompts about how to deal with students with mental health issues. The group also wants the Legislature to set aside money specifically for students who need more help than a teacher can provide.

According to Loveless, paying for mental health in schools may seem like an expensive ask, but she argued what isn't paid for now will cost the state later as untreated mental health issues become more severe over time.

The group did a survey of teachers at four schools in the southeast Iowa area. Not only did most of the teachers surveyed say they didn't feel prepared to help their students with mental health. The teachers also said they want more training in the area.

Other students in the mental health group were Drew Conlee of Central Lee High School; Alli Brotherton of Wapello High School; Jaicey Miller of WACO High School and Saige Barron of New London High School.

Another group of M Power U students presented on childcare.

Child care deserts, the members of the group explained, are a major occurrence in Iowa. In these areas, there are either very few or no options.

"There are many kids on the waiting lists," said Jasmine Allison, a student from Burlington High School.

When combined with an annual cost of up to $10,000, child care can seem out of reach for many families who desperately need it. The group framed child care as an essential part of getting parents to work and, therefore, is an economic issue.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has made this a key priority, and there are several bills the Legislature is considering to make affordable child care a reality for more Iowans.

One of the big concerns of the group is that child care can be difficult for parents who do not work a typical shift. The group also recognized it can be expensive for child care centers to provide staffing needed to provide care later in the day or earlier in the morning.

In the realm of staffing, child care providers are required to have background checks for their employees every two years, a cost that adds up when providers can have 10 or more employees who require background checks every other year. That is just for current employees; applicants also need a background check before they can be hired.

"Average turnover is 27%. It's $25 for a background, and (child care providers) must pay for background checks," explained Seth Bailey, who attends New London High School.

When asked, Emerson Lehman, who comes from Notre Dame High School, said COVID-19 also likely has made providing child care more expensive for providers.

"(It is) more of a problem because they have to pay for (personal protective equipment) and social distance kids," said Lehman.

Other students presenting in this group were Brendan McIntyre, who attends Wapello High School; Rae Hampton, a student at Winfield-Mount Union High School; and Raine Messamaker, who attends West Burlington High School.

Once an option for homeschoolers, nearly all grade-school students across the country started learning online 11 months ago.

"It will be easier to go online in case this happens again," said Chloe Fisher, who attends Winfield-Mount Union High School.

There are, however, some difficulties with keeping school online. Abigail Sugars, a student at Central Lee High School, said not all students have access to broadband, particularly those who live in rural areas. To give students without internet access to school, wireless hotspots have been checked out for students to use. However, Fisher said if broadband were more accessible for Iowa, hotspots would be unnecessary.

According to Reynolds' website, about one-third of Iowans do not have access to broadband and Iowa ranks 45th in access to affordable internet with less than one-fifth of Iowans having access to affordable internet.

While there are bills to get students back in the classroom, some students learn better at home.

"(Having the option for online learning) is great but for some, it is harder and (they) will fall behind," said Jackson Brent, a student at Notre Dame High School.

But that's not to say group members don't see a drawback. Sugars expressed her concern that it will be harder to have cases of child abuse reported, pointing to the decreased number of child abuse and neglect cases after schools went online.

The consensus between the students in the group was that distance learning should remain an option as some students have found it easier than traditional learning.


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