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‘It was a long summer for kids’: Counselors, schools manage mental health among students during pandemic


GALENA–Jen Kaiser, counselor at Galena Primary School, has seen some anxiety among students and worry about the pandemic.

“Students are really mindful of the pandemic and are aware of the changes,” said Kaiser. “They are really good about following the rules, but at times there are some students that have shown an excess amount of worry and stress about the coronavirus.”

Galena Superintendent Tim Vincent and other local administrators realized there should be additional focus on students’ mental health during this time.

“We recognize there is an area of mental health that we need to address,” said Vincent. “It is stressful for students. Whether it’s in school or hybrid, it all affects them differently.”

“There is more anxiety about things and that adds to kids feeling stressed about COVID,” said Angela Bibb, counselor at Southwestern School District. “I think students really struggle with the virtual component and being self-motivated. This is not an ideal situation and I think some kids struggle with being isolated and some high schoolers find ways outside of schools to do that.”

Kaiser said she has talked to students to ease their stress and worry about the virus.

“The general population of students is just really excited and happy to be at school and be able to learn in person,” said Kaiser. “I think the majority of kids missed being at school all through spring and it was a long summer for kids.”

Lisa Breitspecker, counselor at Galena Middle School, also noted students were excited in August when they returned to school and were able to see their friends.

“Some kids really struggled being online,” said Breitspecker. “Even some that are good students in school.”

Breitspecker said that students realized the in-person support that their friends at school provide is important to them and they have shown more care as a result of the pandemic.

“We recognize it is a trying time for the kids and that needs to be taken into consideration,” said Vincent. “Our counselors do an amazing job and have done an incredible job in pivoting to address that part and everything occurring with this different type of school year.”

“Adults and kids are feeling a bit more stressed,” said Bibb. “The changes in rules causes anxiety to raise. Wearing masks and not reading facial expressions has also been challenging for some.”

Kaiser believes students have really gained an appreciation of being in school and being able to learn at school as a result of the pandemic. She said it created a positive outlook on school and they are excited about learning in-person.

Brenda Potter, counselor at River Ridge, also noted she has seen that students at all age levels have realized the importance of being in school because of the pandemic.

“Kids are really noticing the difference that school makes,” said Potter. “They understand the support and the care that teachers give them on a daily basis when they didn’t receive that as easily when learning virtually.”

Kaiser said she saw some changes as well in the spring as a result of the distance learning.

“I feel like students were feeling very isolated and the Zoom fatigue started settling in,” said Kaiser. “It was fun to see their friends, but some kids were thinking that being in front of the computer was hard and made them miss their friends more because they just wanted to be with them. In some cases, they don’t really understand why they can’t be together and it is hard for them to grasp how serious the virus is.”

Potter said that one of the challenging parts of online learning is that students are less likely to open up as the privacy is not the same as it is when they are in school.

“Some kids really had a tough time being at home,” said Potter.

Kaiser said the students have been very compliant of the rules and cautious because they know that they want to stay in school.

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“I feel that they are still the same happy-go- lucky kids,” said Kaiser. “There are a few that have exhibited more signs of stress and worry as others.”

Staff have also been stressed by the changes to their routine, the need to teach in-person and virtually and the fear for their health and well-being.

“Staff is definitely overwhelmed because of all the changes,” said Bibb. “I think the staff is working four times harder than what they typically work.”

Another added dimension in Southwestern is the addition of students to the classroom on Nov. 2 and the changes staff had to make for that as they were hybrid for the first quarter of the school year.

“Everyone is stressed out and overwhelmed,” said Bibb. “I think some people are back in their groove, and for some bringing all the kids back has raised anxiety because of exposure rate.”

Some students, though, welcomed the changes.

“I think some kids liked smaller class sizes, but missed being with everyone,” said Bibb. “Overall students are glad to be around everybody. I think it is important for the school to provide consistency, which is a hard spot to be in with balancing health and mental health. I think kids appreciate being back together, there was some excitement when that happened.”

Vincent has made it a point to have social emotional learning as a critical part of the school day.

“Mental health is right up there with reading, writing and math,” said Vincent. “This pandemic magnifies that the kids most vulnerable are those most likely to stay behind.”

Vincent said teachers are taking the extra step to involve virtual learners and to make them feel included in the classroom setting as well.

Kaiser has adopted some changes to the daily routine for students at Galena Primary School as a result of the pandemic.

Kaiser said her thoughts were consumed over the summer by the best way for her to address these concerns. Kaiser thought about having social/emotional learning at the forefront of the curriculum in order to get students acclimated back to the general school setting.

Social/emotional learning has been a focus for the school year and the day starts each day with a daily social/emotional learning time.

“Every teacher is doing a daily social/emotional learning time with the students,” said Kaiser. “It is like an emotional check-in before the day begins.”

Kaiser pre-records a video students watch each morning. Students also journal daily which is monitored by the teachers and Kaiser to check for excess stress and if students need extra support. They also have to provide how they are feeling, a self-help tip and scenarios about what to do if a friend is sad. The students also discuss a character trait of the day and a mindfulness exercise so students can practice regulating their emotions if they come across a hard time in the day.

“It could either be a yoga move, breathing techniques or visualization,” said Kaiser. “They really seem to like it.”

Breitspecker also involves journaling into a regular routine for students and she and teachers monitor these journals to see if students need extra help or are showing more anxiety and stress than normal. Another lesson Breitspecker is implementing during counseling lessons is grit and talking about resiliency with the students and how they can overcome obstacles.

“Kids are resilient,” said Breitspecker.

“I think kids are very resilient and have done an amazing job to adjust,” said Bibb.

Kaiser and Breitspecker also hold virtual lunch chats on Zoom for those students that are learning remotely to be able to connect with their friends.

“We are doing the best that we can,” said Kaiser. “It is really important to gauge where they are at feeling-wise and it is a hard time for everybody to get through. We just need to keep staying positive and make the most out of a difficult situation. Adults are the leaders that the kids take their social cues from, we are always trying to be mindful of that.”