Group examines mental health issues upon schools reopening

A month of meetings focused on reopening schools kicked off Tuesday, with the Health and Wellness Group deliberating what buildings would look like with minimal community spread of COVID-19 when scheduled to open for 2020-21.

Health and Wellness is one of three working groups established to help create a framework for district and charter school leadership when schools are permitted to reopen, or how to move forward if learning is to continue remotely.

The group is chaired by Mike Rodriguez, associate secretary of the state Department of Education, and Dr. Meghan Walls, pediatric psychologist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.

The working groups are partnered with Opportunity Labs, a national nonprofit. The organization developed the Return to School Roadmap in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Each week, the group will discuss a different scenario — from minimal community spread where buildings are open; to minimal to moderate community spread, where school reopenings are situation-dependent; and substantial community spread, where schools are closed. The group is meant to have its recommendations to Secretary of Education Susan Bunting by June 30.

Public participation is encouraged, though it will be done virtually. Participants may submit public comments to an email address, reopeningideas@doe.k12.de.us, or by voicemail to 735-4244. The department will transcribe the comments and post them to its website (www.doe.k12.de.us). The comments will be shared across the working groups.

Opportunity Labs is providing recommendations in all these areas as a starting point, but they are meant to be just that — a starting point.

“The scenario planning documents will get us about 75 to 80% of the way to our goal, but it’s critical that we make this document Delaware-specific,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “This is what we’re here to do, is to Delaware-ize this plan. The planning documents are not set in stone and are meant to be edited to our needs.”

Tuesday’s meeting addressed what a return to school would look like with minimal community spread and how feasible the recommendations discussed would be.

For the mental health component, several recommendations were discussed.

Before heading back to school, frameworks that were suggested included establishing a crisis response team focused on student and staff mental health; assessing natural resources to determine if there’s need for external support; evaluating staff mental health readiness through outreach and surveys; providing resources for staff self-care; and designating a mental health liaison to work with the district, public health agencies and community partners.

When schools are opening, recommendations include implementing mental health screening for all students; establishing reporting protocols for staff to evaluate physical and mental health status; and maintaining ongoing wellness assessments for staff and students. Through forums and other mediums for conversation, schools would allow students to share and discuss their experience during COVID-19.

Kristin Dwyer, director of legislation and political organizing for the Delaware State Education Association, noted that specialists who deal with the students’ mental health are concerned about what their needs will be if they’re immediately returned to traditional learning.

“There’s a concern amongst specialists that districts will not give them the time to really focus on the mental health of the children, rather there will be such pressure on curriculum, getting students learning again, that our specialists feel like they may not be in a place to learn mentally,” she said.

The Rev. Provey Powell, a member of the state board of education, noted that two impactful events are striking at once, and he worries about the capacity to deliver the amount of support children will need.

“Not only are we dealing with a pandemic, we’re dealing with the civil unrest,” he said, “ … which has put another layer of trauma on our young people, which is going to have to be unpacked and facilitated.”

On top of students’ mental health, LaRetha Odumosu, executive director for the Charter School of New Castle Middle School; Stacy Greenly, counselor of Polytech High School; and Ms. Dwyer all noted concerns for mental health of parents and staff.

For staff, Ms. Greenly emphasized that students will have a lot of need when they return to school, and it’s important the staff is mentally — and physically — prepared to welcome students back.

“It’s been very hard on them to make the adjustments to do this online teaching very quickly,” she said. “I know they’re concerned about the loss of instruction and making sure kids are where they need to be educationally, so we don’t want to lose track of the mental health piece. I think we need to keep in mind where the mental health needs are of the staff because they’re the ones that are up and modeling for the students every day.”

Parents, Ms. Dwyer said, have been bombarded with information — from districts and from the state — while adjusting to the changes for the last few months.

“I think that has to be something to consider — how to condense, consolidate information, and what the best way to do that is for parents so they don’t feel completely overwhelmed as they head back into school,” she said.

Dr. Odumosu said that parents are missing as an important stakeholder for the crisis response team.

“They will ultimately need some support in terms of the social-emotional health, and they’ll also be impacting how their students are viewing coming back to the building, or whether their students come back to the building, even if we are in Phase 1,” she said.

Kevin Fitzgerald, superintendent of the Caesar Rodney School District, expressed concern at rolling out these initiatives in just a few months.

“I’m looking at it from a practical point of view of what school districts and schools have to do in order to open schools within another month or two because our target date right now is Aug. 26,” he said.

“So, while I see a lot of the things here and I hear the comments that are being made, my perspective on this committee is: What do I need to do in order to get my school open and get the kids in there, ready to learn? Then, do I start doing a lot of these other things, or is all of this supposed to be done before I even open the doors?”

For physical health, in this scenario, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend COVID-19 screening, but it does recommend hand-washing best practices, a review of vaccination planning, and updating and finalizing student and staff health records.

In the scenario, with minimal spread, there wouldn’t be changes to class sizes and spacing, nor changes in movement between classes. Students would be able to enter and exit the buildings using normal procedures. Athletics, cafeteria dining, large-scale gatherings and extracurricular activities would also operate normally. School bus operations would also be normal. No personal protective equipment would be required.

More aggressive cleaning practices would be recommended on a daily basis. High-touch areas (lights, doors, benches, bathrooms) should undergo cleaning twice daily. While performing cleaning, staff should wear gloves, masks and face shields.

Parents would be required to check their student’s temperature and monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.

Some group members expressed concern that all parents may not have access to thermometers.

“Certainly, as we’re thinking about equity, that’s a good point to note here,” Dr. Walls said. “Folks are saying we assume parents can check temps, but they may not be able to do this.”

Even with minimal community spread, there are students and teachers who could be at increased risk of infection — those who are older than 65, who have hypertension, diabetes or pulmonary disease, and those who are immunosuppressed.

In this scenario, it would be recommended that all students and staff are able to attend schools and other activities normally. If they choose to, staff and students can “self-identify as having a high-risk medical condition to school staff for planning purposes in the event of an outbreak.”

Some group members pointed out that parents may feel uncomfortable sending children to school, and that more flexibility should be permitted.

Sen. Anthony Delcollo (R-Marshallton) said that remote learning should be provided in some capacity.

“I think that developing that and providing that infrastructure and know-how is going to be important to make sure folks are accommodated because there are definitely going to (be) people who want to err on the side of caution, depending upon what their individual health concerns may be,” he said.

The Rev. Powell noted that individuals with low socioeconomic status trend toward having learning loss.

“When we talk about vulnerability, it says medically, but I just think systemically, when students are from low socioeconomic status, that’s a vulnerability inherently,” he said. “In all the scenarios, we need to keep that in the forefront of our mind.”

Dr. Walls added that the key is to have multiple options.

“I think what I’m hearing all of you saying is we need to consider what alternative options there might be … to make sure students’ needs are being met, even in this low-risk scenario, for a number of reasons that might make students vulnerable,” she said.

The Health and Wellness working group will meet Tuesdays throughout the month. Academics and Equity will meet Wednesdays, and Operations and Services will meet Thursdays. All meetings are scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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