Mental Health Focus Began As Schools Closed

Meals, Instruction and Mental Health - WCS Priorities
Posted on 04/23/2020
This is the image for the news article titled Meals, Instruction and Mental Health - WCS PrioritiesMay is mental health awareness month across the United States. But the emphasis on that aspect of a child’s development has been on the minds of Weakley County Schools’ administrators, board and staff since March.

When Weakley County Schools first closed campuses on March 17, Director Randy Frazier’s stated priorities were the safety and health of the students. After initiating a meal distribution program that has exceeded 100,000 meals in a month’s time, he turned staff’s attention to instruction. And mental health was a key factor on what the county chose to do.

“Our intention was to reduce stress while still encouraging learning,” Frazier noted. “We suspected and now know that a quarter of our student population has either no or low access to the internet. We also know we cannot provide the usual individualized attention we offer our special needs students in a time of social distancing. So we opted to explain through printed materials how to devote some time each day to continued engagement.”

Additional online resources were made available but nothing was mandatory and no grades were issued.
While many teachers chose to utilize social media to help keep children focused on reading or solving math problems and others volunteered with meal distribution, Frazier had one official request of teachers. Make calls.

“Our schools are lifelines for our students in many ways,” he explained. “After we set up a plan by which nutritional needs were met, we wanted to address emotional needs as well.”

Explaining COVID 19 to a child
Initially, calls were to check on whether families were aware of food distribution points. Next, came calls determining the level of internet access across the county. Now, teachers continue to reach out to determine how children and youth are dealing with the news of the close out of the school year.

They do, that is, if they have correct phone numbers.

“We have learned through this process that many of the numbers we have on file for parents and caregivers were outdated,” noted Frazier. “If parents have not received a call from a teacher that may be the case. If so, we need for them to contact the school and provide the correct contact information.”

Frazier also stated that the online registration process in the fall will include additional prompts to secure those details.

Weakley County Schools’ social worker Kellie Sims, BSSW, says she has been contacting her students, parents or guardians on a regular basis since the closure. She works primarily with the special needs population. She’s uncovered a few situations where travel to and from the meal distribution points was an issue because of a lack of a car. In each case, schools were able to meet the students’ needs.

“The families are so appreciative of the meals!” she shared.

“The guardians report the students are doing well,” she added. “And some have utilized this time to go see other family members and spend time with them.”

Brittany Jaco, MSSW, is also a social worker with the school system. Currently, her calls to students with whom she works have revealed no new problems as a result of the closure.

Checking on a child's mental well being
“However, I see it coming,” she cautions. “If parents do not encourage their children to get into a routine, avoid staying up all night and sleeping all day, I can see mood disorders increasing. Some of the main things that we can all do to help our mental health is to stay on a schedule, try to get outside and get sunlight and as the saying goes, ‘Eat right, sleep right and exercise.’”

She suggests that it would be helpful if calls from teachers in the future included such questions as: Are you keeping a schedule? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you taking time to exercise?

Weakley County Schools’ Student Assistance Program (SAP) counselor, Scott Smiley, MA, confirms that at the moment, with only a few weeks of school closure, what some might have suspected would be an upturn in requested services has not occurred.

“It may be surprising,” he acknowledged. “Everybody thinks students may be feeling anxious but actually they are feeling less anxious. They don’t have the normal pressure at school, feeling like they have to perform academically and social pressure from peers.”

However, as the closure extends and the tendency to stay up late, sleep late, follow no consistent schedule, and make unhealthy eating choices increases, then boredom and stress will be on the rise as well.

“That’s when you are going to see problems arise,” he said. “For young people, routine is very important. Some adjust and are resilient, but we do find students coming back from summer break having problem adjusting.”

An additional concern is the caregiver’s stress.

“They are normally at work and are now having to adjust to a new routine,” he pointed out. “And their stress will be noticed by children.”

To deal with stress, Smiley recommends encouraging the child to talk about feelings and indicating an openness to talk whenever the child is ready, going outside, and physical activity.

He says that when looking for things that can be done that comply with social distancing, “Chores is not a bad word. I encourage art and creative things to do as well. With younger children, focus on imagination. With older you can ask for more responsibility.”

Bethany Allen, Director of Coordinated School Health for Weakley County Schools, suggests parents reflect on their own confusion related to COVID-19 and realize that children are “just as confused.”

“Kids are going to have outbursts,” she noted. “They don’t understand what is going on around them and they have no control over it. They can’t control their emotions and need guidance.”

Modeling an understanding of emotions, listening, and talking with your child will help them understand their emotions and let them know it is “ok to be sad that school is out, and it’s ok to be frustrated.”

She underscores the need to be honest with children but also guard them from information that they are not going to understand.

“But we are going to overcome this,” she concluded. “And we will be able to see our school, teachers and friends again. It will just be a little while.”