Working group talks mental health supports should school buildings remain closed

Should school buildings close again next academic year, how to address student and staff mental health remains a pressing topic.

It was the focus of conversation as the Health and Wellness working group met for its fourth week to discuss what reopening schools in different coronavirus environments could look like.

In this scenario, the state would find itself where it was in mid-March: with the spread of the virus high enough that schools would be directed to close. 

“Germany had to reclose some of the schools in one of their region[s] when their [spread of the virus] basically jumped up pretty high and they had an outbreak sort of around a meat packing plant there,” said Mario Ramirez, of Opportunity Labs. “…My expectation would be that, if that were to continue, that would be what a transition to scenario 3 would look like here.”

If schools were to close, athletics would be suspended and buildings cleaning would be maintained. Teaching would be moved to remote formats. 

Considerations would include utilizing the Delaware Department of Education’s resources for student and staff mental health support; activating direct communication channels for district stakeholders to address mental health concerns; and communicating return-to-school information to parents that would cover destigmatization of COVID-19, understanding normal behavior in response to crises and best practices when talking through trauma with children. 

Kristin Dwyer, of the Delaware State Education Association, said that it was important districts have consistency to address mental health.

“Oftentimes, some of our specialists feel their hands are tied when it comes to ethically providing counseling to their students because, for instance, they have to have another person on the call with them, either a [paraprofessional] or another adult, or that child is obviously going through things at home because the home life is very stressful and they may be experiencing some abuse at home but cannot say it when they’re on the Zoom call or whatever it may be with the counselor or the school psychologist,” she said. 

Dana Carr, of the Delaware Division of Public Health, said that in the spring, telehealth services become available through school-based wellness centers.

“We will have some great lessons learned from that,” she said. “Several of them are doing remote [services] and using telehealth tools to do registration into the school-based wellness centers at the high school level. So we’re really trying to expand access to the mental health services.”

In response to leveraging DOE’s resources for mental health support, Rev. Provey Powell, of Mt. Joy United Methodist Church and a member of the state school board, said that having a virtual, standardized assessment for social emotional/mental wellness for students and educators provided by the state for all districts could be beneficial. 

Susan Haberstroh, director of school support services for DOE, said that the department hopes to work with DPH to provide resources or a toolkit to “identify how to use personal screening,” she said. 

“Of course, we wouldn’t mandate any district or school have to use certain materials,” she added.

Rev. Powell and Sue Smith, a nurse at Mispillion Elementary, noted that support has to also be provided to the whole family as they’re taking on the brunt in this scenario. Rev. Powell noted that community leadership that deals with developing the “whole child” is likewise important.

“In this extreme scenario, we need to support the families, the parents, and even the community: gear them up with proper training so that we can support them even if it’s not in the brick and mortar school,” he said.

Health and Wellness meets Tuesdays, the Academics and Equity meets Wednesdays and Operations and Services meets Thursdays. All meetings are scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. and can be streamed on DOE’s Youtube channel. 

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 302-735-4244. The department will transcribe the comments and post them online, to the department’s website (www.doe.k12.de.us). The comments will be shared across the working groups.