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Schools struggle to provide mental health resources during shutdown

Public school administrators in Virginia say they are struggling to provide needed mental health services to students while schools are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Capital News Service

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Virginia school administrators say they are struggling to provide mental health services during the coronavirus pandemic, even as vulnerable students continue with online studies away from regular counseling and support.

As school systems move to virtual learning, school counseling resources, deemed critical to student wellness by the U.S. Department of Education, are unable to provide in-person therapy for high-risk students. The alternative treatments — online sessions or new therapists from community services boards — could fall short in continuing care and supporting students during the pandemic, mental health professionals say.

The global crisis has brought added stress and anxiety to students and their families. More than 100,000 children and teens suffer from mental illness in Virginia, according to the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The pandemic “is going to exacerbate some of those kids’ symptoms — even the kids that have outside providers,” said Nicolo Porto, a high school social worker in Northern Virginia. “The biggest thing that we’re still working through is we can’t provide mental health services to kids.”

For many students, access to trusted adults and mental health resources were suddenly cut off on March 23, when Gov. Ralph Northam officially closed schools throughout Virginia for the rest of the academic year. Several other local school boards had made the decision weeks earlier.

“I was genuinely devastated,” said one student from Chesterfield who had been regularly meeting with her school’s resource officer and relied on support from three teachers. The 18-year-old student, who wished to remain anonymous, said her resources at school were like family to her.

“Those four people were my rock. They were the sole reason why I would get out of bed in the morning,” the Chesterfield teen said. “I never got to say a goodbye or anything. One day they were 3 feet away from me and next they were gone — like someone just turned the light off. I still get emotional thinking about it.”

Universal efforts are being made across school divisions to help children transition, Maribel Saimre, director of student services at the Virginia Department of Education, wrote in an email. Although schools are providing students and their parents with coping strategies during virtual learning, consistency of care is not guaranteed, she said.

“Resources vary by community,” Saimre said. “Crisis intervention is available across all community service boards, but other services are going to vary depending on the locality and providers.”

While some school districts are embracing telehealth, others are hesitant to use it as a replacement for in-person treatment.

Virtual counseling poses privacy concerns, and can produce lower quality care, Porto said.

Porto, who specializes in crisis intervention and trauma, said his role as a school social worker abruptly shifted to an administrative role when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Virginia. Porto had been working regularly with several students when his school district suddenly closed schools. Since his school closed, he has had no contact or time to make contingency plans with any of his students due to legal and ethical concerns.

Each school district has its own guidelines for how or if counselors can contact their students. For example, some districts allow counselors to send emails to students to check in, but others require specific signed permission for outside-of-school contact related to privacy practices and counseling confidentiality.

School social workers and psychologists in Virginia are not required to complete telehealth training as it isn’t necessary in typical school environments. Even with training, Porto said the quality of virtual healthcare is diminished because counselors cannot analyze body language.

Mental health professionals also cannot guarantee a confidential environment over a virtual platform. “There’s no way to be sure that their parent isn’t sitting off camera,” Porto said.

Porto also said that because some families do not believe in mental health treatment, their children lose all of their mental health resources when schools close. Other students who don’t typically seek resources may find themselves in need during social distancing and continued isolation.

School psychologists and social workers are left to focus on providing online resources and communicating with parents, who frequently must initiate contact.

To cope with concerns over treatment gaps, administrators are also referring students to providers outside of the school system. Saimre said some Virginia localities are using an out-of-office voicemail system to refer students to community resources.

“The double-edged sword is that there are actually a lot of places for mental health, but very few of them actually take insurance, and even then, it can still be expensive,” Porto said.

Even if students want to have online therapy sessions, many cannot. In 17 Virginia counties, less than half of the population has access to broadband internet, according to Broadband Now, an advocacy group.

“The well-off kids have access to that, but many, many kids don’t have access to it, so they are caught in a situation where they are deprived,” said Bob Trestman, chair of psychiatry and behavioral health at the Carilion Clinic in Roanoke. “I have no doubt that there are many children who previously were receiving care who now, either no longer have access or, because of the nature of their problems, no longer have the support to continue their care.”

Some districts throughout the state have tried to combat digital inequity by providing computers, tablets or internet hotspots. However, some districts can’t afford it.

“It could have an outsized impact on kids who are not able to connect in person or to connect electronically,” said Lloyd English, a school psychologist for Norfolk Public Schools where hotspots have been distributed to those in need. He expected the extended period of isolation to be difficult for everyone.

The economic collapse caused by the pandemic has left many families in financial distress. Over 410,000 Virginians applied for unemployment benefits during the first four weeks of the crisis. A parent’s stress is often felt by their children.

“As parents, we transmit all of those anxieties to our kids, no matter how hard we try not to,” English said. “Our students definitely feel that pressure, even for the younger ones.”

With mounting financial concerns, children might find it harder to ask for help.

“We’re already starting to see some of our families that may not ordinarily need to access the meal services, coming to the meal service line to get food,” Porto said. “If your basic needs aren’t even met, you can’t begin to think about your health or your mental health. They’re not going to be in an environment that they can do self care because they’re just trying to survive.”

Most school-provided mental health resources will likely remain limited until students are back in classrooms and able to return to in-person counseling.

Porto said he believes there will be an uptick in students needing mental health services in the fall due to COVID-19, whether the student was personally affected by the disease or other stresses related to the pandemic.

Porto has turned to providing online resources for students and families. He created the Mental Health, Wellness and Community Resources for Families, which lists places students and families can turn to in order to cope with COVID-19.

“When we come back, it’s going to hit me like a freight train, how little I was able to do,” Porto said. “I [will] have to put on my work hat and deal with that in the moment because that’s what these kids need from us.”

Emergency Mental Health Resources:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Text “NAMI” to 741741 if you are having suicidal thoughts or urges.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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New book by former VCU president, history professor tells four-decade history of the university

“Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009,” by Eugene Trani and John Kneebone illuminates the past and future of American public higher education.

RVAHub Staff

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In “Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009,” VCU President Emeritus and University Distinguished Professor Eugene P. Trani, Ph.D., and Associate Professor of History Emeritus John T. Kneebone, Ph.D., tell the story of VCU from its founding in 1968 through the end of Trani’s tenure as president in 2009, and the university’s role in Richmond.

The book, published by the University of Virginia Press and released in September, shows how VCU — created from the merger of the Medical College of Virginia and Richmond Professional Institute to serve a city emerging from an era of desegregation, white flight, political conflict and economic decline — reflects a larger, national story of urban universities and the past and future of American higher education.

Sen. Tim Kaine wrote the foreword of the book, and dust jacket blurbs were provided by former UVA President John Casteen III; former VCU basketball coach Shaka Smart; Susan Gooden, Ph.D., dean of VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs; bestselling novelist and VCU alumnus David Baldacci; and Roger Gregory, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and former rector of the VCU Board of Visitors.

The authors’ royalties from sales of the book will go to the VCU Foundation to fund student scholarships.

Trani and Kneebone recently spoke with VCU News about “Fulfilling the Promise,” which they say shows how VCU has been, and continues to be, a force for positive change in Richmond and Virginia.

What inspired you to work together to tell the story of VCU?

Kneebone: We were coming up on the 40th anniversary and, at that time, people felt like we had something to celebrate. The city had come back and VCU of course was quite successful — it had a large enrollment, enrolling more Virginia students than any other city university.

The book cover of “Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009."
“Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009″ published in September. The authors’ royalties will go to the VCU Foundation to fund student scholarships.

In the summer of 2009, I got a call from the president’s office. Dr. Trani, who was just stepping down, proposed that he and I work together on a history of VCU. My first instinct was to think, well, maybe this isn’t for me. Let me propose to him that I’ll do oral history interviews and we can put together a biography of Dr. Trani, a transformative leader.

He immediately said, “No, that’s too narrow. VCU’s story is much bigger than just one person and more complicated.” He said, “You know, VCU’s last history was Virginius Dabney’s 1988 book on the 20th anniversary. And he gave more attention in that book to the history of the Medical College of Virginia and Richmond Professional Institute than to VCU itself. So VCU really needs a proper history.”

We talked a bit and I said I know a lot about Virginia and Richmond. I’m not sure about higher education. And he said, “Well, I know something about higher education, so we can collaborate.” We set out with me doing research on the earlier years and interviewing him, sort of preliminary interviews.

Of course I could come to him and say, here’s something that was going on in Virginia higher education back then, do you have any thoughts? And he’d go, “Yeah. You know, this is what I was seeing in Nebraska. This is what seemed to be happening in Missouri.” So we had a sense of that larger context as well. We talk about the process in the book’s introduction. I think our different strengths actually worked together.

What is it about VCU’s story that makes it serve as a good microcosm for higher education in the U.S.?

Trani: Sen. Tim Kaine, in the foreword to this book, states there have been three trends that have led to a “powerful transformation in Richmond.” They are the emergence of VCU, the desire of its citizens to change long patterns of discrimination, and a concerted effort to emphasize the city’s natural beauty, especially the James River. This book explains the first of the three, how two institutions — MCV and RPI — came together to create a university that has worked with its community and that by doing so, showed that a large public institution with a significant medical center can not only survive but thrive and play a role in what is known as the “eds and meds” phenomenon that is typically played in urban America by elite private institutions with large medical centers. In that way, VCU can be a role model for higher education in the U.S.

Kneebone: We say that VCU is sort of exemplary of the fall and rise of urban universities. And we tell the story. Urban universities, of course, have always existed but today’s universities in urban areas are more than half of the total number of institutions. City education has become the norm, and that wasn’t always the case. Higher education, the idea was that putting students out in the countryside in a bucolic location where they weren’t distracted gave them a chance to engage in the high jinks of fraternity and sorority life and college life in general.

Urban universities, which catered to working-class immigrant minority students, students who were occupation oriented rather than liberal arts types you might find at traditional schools, seemed to be lower status. The higher status was for more selective schools and schools engaged in research. Urban universities, coming from a low point where they were in the midst of cities that were falling apart, suffering from suburbanization and white flight and conflicts, and with a mission to help solve some of these city issues as well, ended up becoming sort of the exemplars of higher education.

Students today at just about every school are career oriented, are thinking ahead to what they’re going to do in the future, less connected and less worried about fraternities and sororities. And urban universities, particularly, I think, for students who grew up in the suburbs, are a place that is actually lively and exciting instead of scary and dangerous as it was 40, 50 years ago. So it’s a success story that we’re telling.

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U of R School of Law awarded grant to support community work, technology needs for low-income seniors

A new grant from The Community Foundation for a Greater Richmond’s Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund will provide $14,500 in support of the MLP, which is a partnership with VCU.

RVAHub Staff

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The University of Richmond School of Law’s Medical-Legal Partnership provides medical and legal services to approximately 300 residents at Dominion Place Apartments, an affordable housing facility for seniors or individuals with disabilities living on or below the poverty line.

A new grant from The Community Foundation for a Greater Richmond’s Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund will provide $14,500 in support of the MLP, which is a partnership with VCU.

“During COVID-19, Dominion Place, like all elderly resident facilities, has placed strict bans on visitors thereby exacerbating the loneliness crisis among older adults,” said Leigh Melton, Richmond’s elder law faculty member who leads the program.

The grant will directly support COVID-19 related items for Dominion Place residents, including masks, soap, cleaning supplies, and gloves. The funding will also support technological devices with video screens equipped to work with Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant.

“This technology will not only allow the residents much-needed connection with family and friends but also allow the Richmond legal team and the VCU medical group to continue to meet with the residents,” Melton said.

Melton also noted that the pandemic has motivated many residents of Dominion Place to expand their use of technology for the first time, and these devices, which have a camera to help those with visual impairment, help them connect to the outside world.

This program was previously awarded a grant from the Regirer Foundation.

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Family workshops abound in HCPS’ newly reimagined ‘Bridge Builders Academy’ series

Henrico County Public Schools’ family workshops have always been about transformation. Now, the workshop series itself has been transformed to bring Henrico families and educators even more useful presentations, speakers, and events.

RVAHub Staff

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Henrico County Public Schools’ family workshops have always been about transformation. Now, the workshop series itself has been transformed to bring Henrico families and educators even more useful presentations, speakers, and events.

The new name better evokes the series’ purpose: to build connections among families, the community, and the school division. The series has also been divided into four “learning strands,” or categories, to make it easier to find relevant information. The learning strands are: Beyond the Classroom; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Exceptional Education; and Information, Access, and Opportunities.

All fall “Bridge Builders Academy” workshops are virtual, and students, staff, and members of the public can participate using Microsoft Teams. Instructions for joining the workshops are at the new Bridge Builders Academy webpage at https://henricoschools.us/bridgebuildersacademy. Workshops are recorded for later viewing, and you can watch past workshops by going to the Bridge Builders Academy page.

Fall 2020 Bridge Builders Academy workshops are below, grouped by category. For more information, go to https://henricoschools.us/bridgebuildersacademy. The fall sessions are moderated by the HCPS Department of Family and Community Engagement, in conjunction with the session hosts. Questions about workshops can be directed to [email protected].

Fall 2020 Bridge Builders Academy workshops, listed by category:

Beyond the Classroom:

  • Supporting Student Participation in a Virtual Classroom (Sept. 29 at noon). In the new space of virtual learning, families and caregivers have the new responsibility of supporting students in the virtual classroom. This session will focus on tips and strategies to support your learners, straight from the mouths of educators in the virtual classroom.
  • Understanding “New Math” (Oct. 7 at 6 p.m.). A common challenge for most parents is understanding the transition to “new math.” Mathnasium will join us to help families and caregivers understand why the switch was made and how to assist your learner who may need support.
  • Building Resilience in Your Learner (Oct. 20 at noon). When you think of resilience what comes to mind? Join nonprofit ChildSavers for a workshop on building resilience in your learner to help them succeed in their learning space and beyond.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion:

  • Raising a G.U.R.L.L. (Greatness Using Real-Life Lessons) (Oct. 14 at 6 p.m.). “Greatness Using Real-Life Lessons” will focus on Mrs. Scott-Mayo’s journey raising her daughters. The discussion will cover how we can empower our girls, boost their self-esteem, and encourage a positive self-image.
  • Exceptional Education:
  • “Centering You” with the Center for Family Involvement (Oct. 21 at 6 p.m.). Have you heard of the Center for Family Involvement at VCU’s Partnership for People with Disabilities? This session will provide an overview of the organization’s resources and a bonus self-care session for parents to help them support their virtual learners.
  • Virtual IEP Kits (TBD). “IEP Kits” were sent last year to each HCPS school, to help keep families informed about the Individualized Education Program. Explore the digital version, and get access to the information you need about IEPs.

Information, Access, and Opportunities:

  • Digital Resources at Your Fingertips (Sept. 30 at 6 p.m.). Are you ready to help your child reach for the stars? Do you want to get a closer look at the digital resources that support your child’s pre-K through grade 5 virtual classroom? If you answered yes to any of these questions, join us for an up-close look at Henrico’s digital resources.
  • Save, Spend, Achieve (Oct. 6 at 6 p.m.). This session will discuss setting financial goals and strategies to achieve them.
  • Welcome to Henrico from the HCPS Welcome Center (Oct. 13 at noon). Starting in a new school division is a major shift for any family, but especially for families who may need language assistance. Join the HCPS Welcome Center for a session for English-learner families entering Henrico Schools.
  • Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (Oct. 27 at noon). Grandparents raising their grandchildren often face unique challenges as they navigate the school experience. Especially this fall, grandfamilies and other relative caregivers must learn new technology, practices, and systems. Join us as nonprofit Formed Families Forward provides tools and resources for grandparents raising their grandchildren.
  • Advanced Courses (Oct. 28 at 6 p.m.). Advanced Placement courses, specialty center programs, and honors courses are available across Henrico County for students interested in challenging themselves academically. This session will focus on information to help your learner access these courses in middle and high school.

Fall 2020 Bridge Builders Academy workshops, listed chronologically:

  • Save, Spend, Achieve (Oct. 6 at 6 p.m.)
  • Understanding “New Math” (Oct. 7 at 6 p.m.)
  • Welcome to Henrico from the HCPS Welcome Center (Oct. 13 at noon)
  • Raising a G.U.R.L.L. (Greatness Using Real-Life Lessons) (Oct. 14 at 6 p.m.)
  • Building Resilience in Your Learner (Oct. 20 at noon)
  • “Centering You” with the Center for Family Involvement (Oct. 21 at 6 p.m.)
  • Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (Oct. 27 at noon)
  • Advanced Courses (Oct. 28 at 6 p.m.)
  • Virtual IEP Kits (TBD)

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