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Focusing on student mental health during Covid

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The second of two stories examining student mental health.

When the 2019-20 school year ended last June amid a still-spreading coronavirus pandemic, school counselors were well aware that the previous four months had been unlike any that schoolchildren — or their parents — had ever experienced.

Last fall, some sobering statistics confirmed just how challenging the spring, and summer, had been. According to a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in November, mental health-related hospital emergency visits rose 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11 and 31 percent for adolescents and teens ages 12 to 17 from April to October last year, compared with the same time period in 2019.

School districts have had no choice but to sharpen their focus on student mental health. In the Hewlett Woodmere School District, the wellness staff works with students and their families to offer needed re-sources and establish relationships with external clinicians, Laura Peterson, the district’s executive director for special education services, detailed in an email.

“There are also students with whom the wellness staff continue to connect throughout the summer, knowing the needs of the student may not be met by outside resources for a variety of reasons,” Peterson wrote, adding that the district partners with Northwell Health’s Cohen’s Pediatric Behavioral Health Center in Rockville Centre.

Talya Braunstein, a Lawrence School District psychologist at the Brandeis School, a Jewish school for pre-K through eighth-graders, said in an email that while her job “goes on pause” during the summer, she also helps students and families who need more support.

“Last summer, even more than usual, I took extra precaution to provide parents with signs that indicate that their child may require professional support,” Braunstein wrote. Those signs could include losing interest in previously enjoyable activities or undue worrying.

“Every clinician reaches out to the students, sees whether an outside clinician is needed and follows up with the students to see if they’re OK,” Lawrence district psychologist Karen Mackler said of her typical summer routine.

Making plans to reopen

How school would resume in September remained unclear throughout the summer. Schools districts created state-mandated reopening plans.

Lawrence’s Re-entry Committee included a mental health subcommittee. Mackler said that it sent a survey to seventh- and eighth-graders to learn of their concerns. The middle-schoolers were chosen because they are the age group in which issues like depression begin to surface, and they need to learn to advocate for themselves, Mackler explained.

“Their number one concern was making sure they did well in their classes, and the ways we could support them,” she said. They wanted to know how they could continue to be good students.

To ease pressure on its younger students, the Lawrence district reconfigured classes. The 2020-21 kindergarten class remained in the Early Childhood Center at the Number Four School instead of moving to the Lawrence Primary School at the Number Two School.

Third-graders remained at Lawrence Primary School instead of moving to Lawrence Elementary School, at the 195 Broadway Campus, and the sixth-grade class remained at the elementary school.

“This would allow rising students from last year in the lower grades to remain in their buildings and have support staff that they know to support them academically and socially,” Lawrence Superintendent Dr. Ann Pedersen said previously.

In addition to classroom teachers, support staff includes librarians, reading specialists, psychologists and school nurses. The pandemic thoroughly disrupted the school year, Pedersen said, and the support students receive is vital to their well-being.

Hewlett-Woodmere’s Reopening Task Force created a reopening plan for the district that addressed social and emotional learning and wellness support across the district’s five schools. Social and emotional learning focuses on self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship building and responsible decision-making.

“The wellness staff in each building met and created a plan to address the social-emotional needs of students within their building,” Peterson said. “These plans included whole-building activities, push-in lessons and group sessions to address the needs and concerns of the students, all of which are accessible to students in person and online.”

In Lawrence, Braunstein counseled parents and teachers that self-care was more important than ever amid the pandemic. “I used the summer to recharge and find Covid-approved ways to relax in anticipation of a student body needing more emotional guidance and support than in a typical year,” she said. “Entering the school year fully charged, with realistic expectations, was critical to being able to carry the emotional load of school staff and families.”

Moving forward amid the pandemic

Schools reopened in September with a mix of in-person and remote learning, but many more students headed to school. “From my peers, I can tell that everyone really misses the normal school day, even those who find comfort in sitting in their beds all day have admitted to feeling lonely,” Hewlett High School junior Elizabeth Zemlyansky wrote in an email. “I think for us, as adolescents, it’s important to have interaction, whether it be a quick hello in the hallway or going out to lunch with a friend.”

Zemlyansky began the year attending school in person, and after being fully remote in the second semester is now on a hybrid schedule. She took part in the abbreviated winter track season and is the head editor of the news section of the school newspaper, the Spectrum.

“I started a mental health awareness club this year,” she said. “We … have been really successful in getting members to come to the club and share their feelings and reflect on them.” Psychology interns help facilitate the meetings, Zemlyansky added.

In order to compete in the truncated winter swimming season, Hewlett High sophomore Brook Touti opted for full remote learning.

“The switch from full in-person to remote learning was challenging at first, but I eventually adapted to the work environment and developed a great work ethic that helps me very much,” she wrote in an email. “Having a different routine and having to make many changes has definitely impacted me greatly since the pandemic started.” Exercising and maintaining a routine has helped Touti feel happier and lead a healthier lifestyle, she added.

Shoshana Gross, a fourth-grade teacher at the Shulamith School for Girls in Cedarhurst, took part in a virtual educators’ workshop on Feb. 7.

She said she learned how writing could be a tool to “help students process the pandemic story and navigate their feelings” — a tool she will use in the coming weeks. Shulamith’s student population ranges from early childhood to high school.

“In September, the girls were very worried about having to wear masks,” Gross said. “Now they are [calmer] and understand how important it is. Now they walk around, talk to their friends, taking the precautions they need to take. They are less anxious navigating Google Classroom and participating in class. Helping your students grapple with the pandemic gives the students the hope the [Plexiglas] barriers will come down and masks will go away.”

Have an opinion or story to tell about student mental health? Send a letter or story to jbessen@liherald.com.