Inside one school district’s efforts to keep students mentally healthy during coronavirus shutdown
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In Jefferson County, school mental health professionals are working to show students they are supported while school buildings are closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The district announced Friday students will not return to class this school year and instead will continue to learn remotely. 

“We've had to adapt everything that we do,” said Mishele Stein Carroll, the social emotional learning coordinator for Jeffco Public Schools. “We’ve had to take a hard look at … how can we do this in a virtual world, in a virtual format so that there's accessibility? How do we break down the obstacles so that we can be reached whenever folks need it?”

The district has more than 400 mental health providers working in its schools, where students focus not just on academics but also a curriculum focused on socialization and emotional growth. 

Now those professionals tell Insight's John Ferrugia they are navigating the best ways to continue to teach those social-emotional lessons remotely during a time of incredible stress. 

“We're seeing some kids who really do want to talk because they're really worried. They have a lot of anxiety around what's happening in the world,” said Laura Wheeler, the social emotional learning specialist at Campbell Elementary School in Arvada. "They really do want to have that one-on-one conversation."

 

“If I was in my school building, I would be all over in every classroom. Kids know I'm there. So I thought about, how can I do that in a virtual setting?” Wheeler said. “I've been going into the virtual classrooms and commenting on kids' work, making announcements, saying, 'Miss Wheeler's just stopping in to say hi!' Making sure they know I'm there.” 

Wheeler said she set up a Google voice phone number and shared it with students, as well as creating a form for students to arrange a time to meet virtually with her. 

“Kids don't necessarily want to have big conversations, but they want to come and show us their pets ... they want to come in just to talk to us about what they ate for dinner, because they're used to being able to connect with adults on a regular basis and connect with other kids, and they're not getting that,” Wheeler said. “The biggest thing I think we're seeing ... is the loss of feeling connected to something and connected to other people.”

Counselors are also working with families to provide support to parents who are now trying to play the role of teacher for their children while also trying to make ends meet.

“We know if our families are struggling then our kids are going to be struggling. So we want to be supporting them as well,” Wheeler said. “We're problem solving one-on-one with families. We're creating parent forums where they can come in and talk and consult with us and talk about different systems and structures they can put in place. They're not used to having their kids at home and doing schoolwork ... which is another big challenge.” 

Jeffco district officials are part of a statewide partnership for children’s mental health, where professionals from all over the state are sharing their successes and challenges. 

“Across the state, we're all really obviously very new at this and have different kinds of obstacles that come up every day … things that one district has experienced [that] maybe another district hasn't even thought of,” Carroll said. “It's great to get other ideas from across the state.”

A major focus for the district is communicating to families that help is available even when schools are closed.

“I have found that because we're living in this virtual world, we've had fewer phone calls ... We want people to still call to still ask questions and stay connected,” Carroll said. “That's why we're really trying to do everything we can to reach out to them first.”

“We miss our kids. We want to be there for them. We want to be there for their families, so please just reach out,” Wheeler said.

 

Resources for students and families: 

COVID-19 mental health supports compiled by Jeffco Public Schools

PBS Kids activity finder: Emotions and self-awareness 

PBS Kids for Parents: Raising kids who thrive

At-Home Learning with RMPBS

If you or someone who love is experiencing a mental health crisis, reach Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255.

Anonymously report concerns about threats to your safety or the safety of someone else through Safe2Tell at 1-877-542-7233.