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Colorado schools sound the alarm on students’ emotional well-being during coronavirus crisis

Social emotional health may have to take priority over academic expectations. “The least important thing will be the math assignment if a family needs a different kind of support,” Cañon City Schools leader said.

Students in Barbara Haggerty's third grade class at Pennock Elementary School are already hard at work inside their classroom at the start of another school year on August 22, 2019 in Brighton. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Forty-six percent of Colorado school districts say they need help with technology to teach students remotely. But more critically, students are stressed out and need more support for emotional well-being than academics, according to a statewide needs assessment to suss out the top needs among districts amid the new coronavirus.

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The coronavirus has amplified stress for a lot of families as it has completely transformed all daily routines, placed a lot of economic hardship on families, stirred up a fear of getting sick and created a lot of uncertainty, said Landon Mascareñaz, vice president of community partnerships at the Colorado Education Initiative.

“It’s not surprising that our students are feeling that pressure and feeling that stress,” he said, with underserved students likely feeling it the most.

The assessment, conducted from late March to early April by the Colorado Department of Education and CEI, gauges how school districts are managing with schools closed to in-person instruction and the kinds of needs and issues their families and communities are facing.

“It became really clear as the (COVID-19) crisis unfolded that before we coordinated action, we had to coordinate awareness,” Mascareñaz said. The intention of the assessment, he said, was to get an understanding of what’s happening on the ground in school districts and then devise a plan of action.

Results, released on Monday, reveal that 52% of responding districts identified student emotional support as a top need. The assessment incorporates the feedback of 184 districts and Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, which are extensions of local school districts that facilitate specific services across school districts. Colorado has 178 school districts. About 83%  of the districts that took part in the survey are in rural communities.

The needs assessment also included responses from 186 charter or facility schools, though findings from those schools were not part of the report made public on Monday.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The need to support students’ social emotional health was one that the state was already hearing about anecdotally, “that that was a need that they were seeing and anticipating and concerned about,” said Alyssa Pearson, CDE’s deputy commissioner.

In helping districts support students’ social emotional health throughout the pandemic, the state will play a matchmaking role, looking at districts’ needs “and match them with partners who really have great expertise in that area,” Pearson said.

“Lead with care and compassion”

All eight regions of Colorado identified in the assessment cited student social emotional support as a leading priority, with six regions saying it is the most important priority.

Regional and district leaders are particularly concerned about social emotional support for elementary students, the report says, whereas student engagement is more critical in middle and high school grades.

The responsibility for addressing student emotional health falls on the shoulders of more than educators, Mascareñaz said, as it requires that everyone in communities play a role.

“We really believe that schools and districts that bring in families and community partners to have this conversation is pretty essential,” he said. And districts that involve more people in a conversation about how to support students, educators and learning will be in a better position.

In Cañon City Schools, about 300 students receive mental health services through outside agencies, said Jamie Murray, behavioral health coordinator for the district.

The district collaborates with two agencies, Solvista Health and Gateway to Success, Murray said, and when the coronavirus outbreak began, the district pushed out the Zoom application into all students’ Chromebooks so that they could continue their counseling sessions through telehealth.

Now, if school counselors sense that families with kids who normally get counseling are struggling, the district will reach out to the private clinician involved — with families’ permission — to see what kind of support it can offer from the educational end, Murray said.

Cañon City Schools, a district of about 3,600 students, has taken a holistic approach to its students’ social emotional health while schools have been closed. On Monday, Superintendent George Welsh announced that schools will remain closed to in-person classes for the rest of the academic year, which he said will affect how the district handles students’ social emotional health moving forward.

The district’s efforts related to social emotional health started with a survey that asked students how they were faring with digital learning, how they were feeling from an emotional standpoint and whether they wanted to schedule routine check-ins with their school counselor.

Initial results indicated that students weren’t experiencing additional stress, Murray said. But she knows that could change. Students’ emotions, she predicts, are evolving.

Cañon City Schools also downloaded social emotional lessons into Google classrooms, where students can access them from home. The district also has developed age-appropriate resources on its website for students and parents. 

A lot of the work anchoring Cañon City Schools’ focus on social emotional health involves teaching kids how to navigate stress and anxiety. One way to do that, Murray said, is by creating a schedule. The district has coached children on designing a daily schedule that incorporates academics, physical activity, social interaction with peers, quality family time and self-care with an element of creativity.

Other measures targeting social emotional health include family outreach from the district’s counseling team and a digital tool in which administrators and counselors are alerted if a student writes about a safety issue like self-harm or another student in danger on their district-owned Chromebook.

Murray said some of the consequences of the unpredictability of the pandemic include heightened anxiety and a perceived lack of control. She said the district has tried to help parents manage their stress because they realize the additional stress parents are burdened with — and how their stress can translate to their children.

“We’re in unprecedented times where there is an increase in anxiety, and that’s a normal reaction,” she said.

The district’s goal, in terms of social emotional health, is to support families with what they need, — whether they need support with academics, help with anxiety and stress or input in outlining schedules, Murray said.

“Essentially we have to lead with care and compassion during this time,” she said.

Welsh, the superintendent, recognizes that social emotional health may have to take priority over academic expectations.

“The least important thing will be the math assignment if a family needs a different kind of support,” he said.

Not being able to see students in person weighs heavily on Welsh’s mind. When kids come to school, he said, staff can identify when something is wrong, whether it’s physical harm or whether a student is not doing well emotionally.

Despite “herculean efforts” by staff, some students who have especially challenging circumstances at home simply aren’t showing up for their online classes. And that has left teachers wondering about their well-being.

Preschool teacher Hannah Halferty leads an activity with students Johanna Martinez, Harrison Johhnston, and Kole Macias at Shawsheen Elementary in Greeley on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Rural communities “already woefully underresourced”

After addressing the immediate needs of their districts, around components like curriculum and technology, rural school districts have been starting to recognize the next tier of supports, including social emotional health, behavioral health and family engagement, said Michelle Murphy, executive director of Colorado Rural Alliance.

In the move to support students’ social emotional health, she said districts have been reassigning paraprofessionals to reach out to students, including those learning English, children with special needs and students who are not engaging in remote learning. School districts are also working with partners to provide resources to teachers and paraprofessionals to identify when children or families may be in stress and may need additional support.

Trying to support students’ social emotional health without in-person contact is a significant challenge.

“All of our older, sort of more traditional models are out the window when you can’t sit down with a student and/or a parent and talk to them face to face,” Murphy said.

She added that telehealth options have expanded in districts, though some districts are struggling to make telehealth fit for their students.

Another challenge: keeping up with student need in the future, particularly with upcoming cuts to the state budget.

Murphy worries about the consequences for rural districts in particular, what other cuts will have to be made as a result and how behavioral health supports will continue to be supplied “when we really have limited infrastructure in so many of our communities.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Unless the state steps up and recognizes rural communities’ need, Murphy said she doesn’t see how rural districts will be able to ensure kids and families have access to mental health support.

Rural districts are already financially struggling under the state’s arcane school-finance formula and more often than not are leaning on grant-funded programs for counseling and school nurses.

Rural communities are “already woefully underresourced” when it comes to behavioral health supports for students and families, Murphy said.

“It’s hard to imagine how any cuts would impact that at a time where we’re only going to see increasing needs.”


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