JONESBORO — School counselors are working to ensure students stay mentally healthy and learn good coping strategies to handle stress caused by the pandemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, factors such as social restrictions, school shutdowns and school closures are affecting the mental well-being of children.
Craighead County is reaching the one-year anniversary of when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Valley View Intermediate School Counselor Erin Popejoy said she is worried about the lingering effects of the pandemic – even when it’s finally over.
“These students have had to learn to communicate in a whole different way,” she said. “With half the face covered, half our communication is non-verbal, so students are struggling to learn and struggling to keep up.”
As an adult, Popejoy said she did not realize how much she depended on seeing a person’s lips move and seeing facial expressions to be able to interpret what is being said.
When Valley View students approach her or she becomes aware of a student struggling in any capacity, Popejoy said she meets them where they are.
“It takes a different approach for every student,” she said. “Oftentimes children have a singular focus where they think they are the only ones struggling.”
Popejoy said she teaches effective techniques that allow students to work through anxieties including letting them express their emotions. Popejoy said a child’s natural tendency is to bottle up their feelings.
“I try to do group exercises to encourage communication and then let them express their emotions,” she said.
One local elementary school is tackling the mental health aspect of COVID-19 on a school-wide level.
Cheryl Lenards, school counselor at University Heights School of Medical Arts, said the school had plans to implement a mental health curriculum even before COVID-19.
“Emotional health was one of the areas we pinpointed to address with students this year,” Lenards said. “We felt as a school, and as a leadership team, we needed to build relationships with our students to help them be better people.”
Lenards said the school chose a curriculum to help them accomplish the task.
“‘Choose Love’, designed by Scarlett Lewis, has four components: courage, gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion/action,” she said.
Lewis wrote the curriculum after her 6-year-old son Jessie Lewis was shot and killed during a school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. in December 2012.
University Heights is known for its innovative approach to education and was the first in the area to allow a therapy dog to become a weekly visitor at the campus and the first to model school culture after children’s author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series.
Last year the school established a Harry Potter inspired system by establishing a school culture based on Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which is the scene of many events in Rowling’s series.
University Heights has sorted their students into six houses that meet on a regular basis and have frequent competitions.
Lenards said every week, “Choose Love” is taught in the school house meetings.
“We use our house meetings and use videos, books and stories to help enhance the topics presented in the ‘Choose Love’ curriculum,” Lenards said.
Lenards also does classroom counseling sessions for added emotional support.
“There are lessons on topics such as kindness, and being respectful, being mindful of others,” she said.
Students also have access to individualized care.
“I talk about ways they can minimize their anxieties like using breathing techniques and writing letters,” she said.
Lenards said she encourages parents to talk to their children and contact her if they need assistance. “If I can’t help, I have access to outside resources,” she said.
Other schools are handling the mental health aspect of COVID-19 using similar approaches.
Westside Middle School Counselor Kelly Rider said she too is conducting weekly lessons to teach students about mental health and how to cope.
“I go into the classrooms each week and talk about mental health,” she said. “We talk about what (mental) health is and what strategies to use. We have discussed what depression is and what we need to do to confront that.”
Rider said virtual students are not left out and are required to attend from their homes while she is teaching.
Rider said she advises her students to communicate. “I encourage them to talk to their parents, and talk to their teachers,” she said.
Traditional students are not the only students affected said Christina West, a special education instructor at Jonesboro Public Schools Math and Science Elementary.
West works with developmentally impaired students who are placed in self-contained classrooms.
“I think some of these students have adjusted well, but there are some kids who are struggling a little bit,” she said, noting one of the biggest challenges is catching up students who have regressed to where they were before the pandemic hit.
Whatever challenges the students have faced beyond the pandemic is not stopping them from holding each other accountable, said West.
“If they see other students with their masks down, they stop them and tell them to pull their masks up,” she said. “They don’t want to catch corona.”
West said it takes a team effort to help students as they navigate the current crisis.
“Our occupational therapists help a lot,” she said. “If some of my students are having a hard time, therapists will pull them out of class and get them back on track.”
Even though educators and support staff are doing all they can to teach students coping skills, some educators wonder just how much of a lasting impact the pandemic will have in the years to come.
Popejoy said she has spent the past year teaching students how to communicate differently, learning to handle having the handicap of masks and teaching students to navigate in virtual learning environments. She wonders what the full impact will be once life returns to some semblance of normality.
“We have encouraged isolation, keeping your distance and only going out when necessary,” she said. “I am afraid these habits will follow us.”