School

Elizabeth Natalia says “I love you” to her son as she drops him off for the first day of school Aug. 11, 2021, at Covillaud Elementary School in Marysville.

As students return to school after winter break, local school districts have seen a spike of COVID-19 cases among staff and students. In addition to the challenges of staff and student quarantines, school districts nationwide also face staffing shortages and a politicized controversy over the usage of masks by parents and community members. Many districts are also concerned with students’ loss of learning since the start of the pandemic. 

As school districts juggle many issues, the mental health needs of children are surging and local school counselors are doing everything within their abilities to ensure the well-being of children. 

A declaration of a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health was announced by the American Academy of Pediatrics in October 2021 due to the soaring rates of mental health challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has posed for children, adolescents and families. 

This week the Appeal conversed with a school counselor from Yuba City Unified School District and a school counselor from Marysville Joint Unified School District who said they have seen a rise in anxiety among students. 

Elizabeth Braun, a YCUSD school counselor at Gray Avenue Middle School, has been providing emotional learning support to students for 16 years. Unlike past years, Braun has seen a rise in  student needs. Jessica Alcantar, a MJUSD school counselor at Covillaud Elementary, began as a school counselor in 2019 and also expressed seeing underlying anxiety in students. 

 

How did COVID-19 change your job? 

Braun: When the pandemic began and all the students went on to distance learning, as counselors, we tried to continue to provide the social emotional learning support through Google Meets or through home visits when we were able to. Of course, we never entered the home. We were always outside the home but making home visits to check on students who weren’t engaging. We would call families and parents to see if there’s any help they needed. We really tried to extend our outreach as much as we could to continue the connection with our students and our families.

Alcantar: When COVID-19 began, we were still developing a comprehensive counseling program that year and so one way it’s changed is I feel like all the teachers and everybody understands the need. Teachers at my site are willing to have me in the classroom, want me to work with the kids and understand the need for it. 

 

What are some of the struggles students are going through this year? 

Braun: I would say we see a lot more anxiety. Kids are worried about their grades and worried about falling behind. I think kids generally are happy to be back in school and have been really good about wearing their masks. But I’ve definitely seen more anxiety and kids learning how to communicate with one another again because they have been isolated and at home for so long. They’re used to talking through text or social media. Initially, when students were coming back, they were very quiet with each other.

Alcantar: They are having a hard time talking to each other. They spent so much time on video games and technology that they’re having a hard time reading social cues. They’re having a hard time with basic social and friendship skills. 

When everybody came back in-person last year, you could see the anxiety in students. An example is the use of the restroom, that’s what they do when they’re more anxious now. Maybe they’re behind or maybe they’re feeling like they’re having a hard time catching up so the number of restroom trips to distract them is higher. Absolutely, we’re seeing an increase in anxiety. They all have a lot of unanswered questions, too. They’re hearing different things. Some kids are really adamant about wearing the masks and some kids aren’t, so there’s sometimes concern and anxiety about that. Their anxiety is kind of manifesting differently than it would in the past.

 

How do you best  help students with their struggles? 

Braun: Doing activities to help them feel welcomed and less nervous. Those are some of the interventions and the proactive, positive behavior interventions that we are putting in place. The way that a lot of times we can detect if kids are struggling is that kids are much more emotional. I would say I see kids getting frustrated much easier and teachers see the kids upset. So teachers will either call the counselors. We have two counselors here and a social worker.  So our teachers will always reach out to us and say, hey, a student is having a hard time. Can I send them down to you or can you come get them? We will then bring that student into our office or talk to them and ask them what’s going on? What are you feeling right now? We try to do some relaxation exercises with them, some mindfulness exercises, helping them focus on positive things, reassuring them that we’re here to support them.

Alcantar: At the elementary level, we are doing classroom lessons anywhere from one to four times a month. School counselors are going into the classroom and doing classroom lessons. This month, we are focusing on kindness. We’re doing kindness awareness all month long and our lessons are geared towards kindness. That’s school wide. 

We also pull groups. One of the groups I’m running specifically is called a resiliency group, so it’s called the Bounce Back group. It’s about students who have a struggle. Students had a huge struggle last year with learning the coping skills, trying to understand what you can control, what you’re unable to control and then just kind of regulating and identifying their emotions. I do a lot of groups and then still, if they’re still struggling, we do some individual counseling as well.

 

As a human being experiencing a pandemic, do you feel like you have been struggling yourself? 

Braun: Yeah, I think so. Because the need for the kids has gone up, trying to meet everyone’s needs is difficult because the kids who are doing well and excelling, we certainly don’t want to leave them behind. We want to be able to push them. But at the same time, with the amount of kids whose needs are rising, they are requiring more time, too, so I think the whole push for social emotional learning has really come to the forefront. If anything right now, it just shows how important it is to have counseling and social services and all those services available within schools. 

Alcantar: I feel like the pandemic taught me a lot of grace because I’m a perfectionist and I want to be able to help everybody. It’s really kind of taught me to be more patient, that this is going to take some time. It’s going to take a couple of years to get all of us back to where we were socially or academically, if you’re a kid. It’s really taught me to focus on being patient and to kind of slow things down a little bit and definitely be more flexible.

I have found, and I think I could speak for all the school counselors, that we want to focus so much on school and with the students that when we go home, we’re doing our notes, we’re doing our computer work, we’re doing our lesson planning. We are looking for resources. Absolutely, we are spending a good amount of time doing that in the evenings or on weekends. 

 

How can families, parents and guardians best help their children with their mental health needs? 

Braun: I would say talk to them, just communicate with your kids. I’m also a parent. We get busy in our own jobs and our own lives but just asking the students, “So how was school today?” And if they go, “oh, fine,” try asking deeper questions to really have a conversation with your kids. “Well, how did your day go? Is there anything that I should know?” Just trying to dig a little bit deeper and again, just spending that time with students because this is an important age. Communication is everything, it’s really important. The number one thing parents can do is try to communicate and spend time with their kids

Alcantar: I would say, talk to them and really listen to what they have to say and get them outside. These kids need to be outside.

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