The Novi Community School District has brought in therapy dogs to eight of its school buildings for the 2021-22 school year to provide social and emotional support to students after being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
METRO DETROIT — In April 2020 — one month after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed schools statewide because of COVID-19 — Warren Consolidated Schools staff members established a social and emotional learning committee.
Comprising administrators, psychologists, special education teachers, social workers and counselors, committee members immediately found ways to assist the students socially and emotionally as they conducted their studies 100% virtually.
“We wanted to support the things they were going through. Everyone was isolated, not being able to see their friends,” said Amanda Abernathy, the special education supervisor and chair of Warren Con’s social-emotional learning committee.
Plus, there were added responsibilities as “students were caring for their siblings” while their parents went to work. Students couldn’t play sports or be active in their school clubs, which is generally an outlet for them. Even going outside to play in a park was discouraged.
“People were worried how about (the virus) could spread,” Abernathy said.
During the 2020-2021 school year, students attended school either virtually, hybrid or face-to-face, with districts pivoting sometimes, depending on virus outbreaks. Since that time, local districts have taken steps to provide extra counseling support for students experiencing depression, anxiety, isolation and fear because of the pandemic. Some have added therapy dogs and afterschool programs. And now that many students have returned to school in person full-time, some are having a hard time adjusting.
“We are seeing a lot of kids with separation anxiety after they spent a lot of time with their parents,” Abernathy said. Therefore, the Warren Con social-emotional learning committee is still working together to provide support. For example, this year, the district added counselors to every elementary school.
According to Abernathy, “calming areas” in each Warren Con school building have been established where students can take a few moments when feeling stressed. There, yoga mats are used for stretching, pop-it hand gadgets can get out a student’s energy, bean bag chairs are for relaxing, and wall-size sheets are hung so students can color, which can be therapeutic. Staff also continue to provide information to parents regarding what to look out for if their child is withdrawn or depressed.
Sharnita Magnum, a social worker in Eastpointe Community Schools, works with students at the district’s secondary campus, which includes the Eighth Grade Academy, Eastpointe High School, and the Eastpointe Alternative Center and Eastpointe Virtual Academy.
“Some students have acquired mental health issues over the pandemic. They have more anxiety,” Magnum said. “They do feel isolated because they want to play sports and go out. Parents want kids to be in the home more.”
Some students also are mourning the loss of family members who died from COVID-19. Students, too, are afraid of becoming sick with the virus.
“We’re doing things to make them feel safe. Every school has two social workers, one for at-risk students and one for special education. Staff are trying to meet the students where they are,” Magnum said. “We have hand sanitizing stations where they can wash their hands.”
In addition, clothing has been donated to the school for students who want to change clothes during the day in case they or someone sneezes. There is a reset room where students can go “to relax for a few minutes,” Magnum said. There are discussions about the virus in school to help the students better understand it.
“In science, teachers are trying to educate the kids about COVID,” Magnum said. “We have a registered nurse on staff, as well.”
Another factor Eastpointe students are dealing with is the pressure for their families to get vaccinated. Magnum explained that many district families are hesitant to get the vaccine, perhaps in part because of the Tuskegee Experiment, also known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which occurred from 1932-72 on Black male Americans.
“We are predominantly African American,” she said. “A lot of Black families have that on their minds. They’re not getting the COVID shot. The African American students are getting overwhelmed.”
Rochester Community Schools educators also are taking the students’ social and emotional well-being very seriously, which began prior to the pandemic. In February 2019, the district instituted a social-emotional wellness task force that developed a systemic K-12 approach to social and emotional learning.
“We saw problems with opioid addiction, and we experienced some loss in the community. We experienced some suicides, and we lost a number of former students to addiction,” district Superintendent Robert Shaner said. “We were concerned for some of our students’ mental health issues.”
At that time, task force members began visiting classrooms to talk with students in an effort to build connections and relationships with them. Staff also found ways to implement strategies for students when they feel anxious or overwhelmed. Even through the pandemic, educators continue to work with the Center for Trauma Resilient Communities to provide training webinars. In addition, peer mentoring programs and character-building initiatives have been implemented district-wide. Therapy dogs are available, and many of the district’s school buildings have wellness rooms.
When the pandemic hit, students “experienced loss of learning, loss of social gatherings, seeing their friends and teacher connection,” Hart Middle School Principal Allison Roberts said.
Last March, Rochester Community Schools students returned to school full-time in person, with staff trying to make school as normal as possible for them. They returned this year full-time in person for the 2021-2022 school year.
“Kids have found they really value the connections of their peers and in-person learning,” Roberts said. “They’re ecstatic to be back. Kids are very resilient. They thrive in routine structure.”
School, however, looks a bit different to them because students, staff and visitors must wear masks all day in school, per the Oakland County Health Division. That is another element with which students are dealing.
RCS officials have included a video about the task force on its website at www.rochester.k12.mi.us. The website contains a wealth of information, including information about self-care, how to stay healthy, and in-person and virtual family activities and wellness resources.
RCS is partnering with the School Community Health Alliance of Michigan, in a cooperation with Honor Community Health, to provide behavioral health support for students and families. Honor Community Health provides a licensed, clinical social worker to work with students, including those enrolled in the RCS Virtual Campus. Through the pilot program, RCS currently has a behavioral health professional at Hart Middle School, with the vision to expand the program in an elementary school and a high school.
“We’re very proud of our students and staff for navigating through a very, very challenging time,” Shaner said. “I think we’ll move forward together.”
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