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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.



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.



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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University of Richmond ranked as one of “Nation’s Most Environmentally Responsible Colleges” by The Princeton Review

For 12 consecutive years, The Princeton Review has selected the University of Richmond as a top school for environmental stewardship.  



For 12 consecutive years, The Princeton Review has selected the University of Richmond as a top school for environmental stewardship.

Since 2010, The Princeton Review has released its annual Guide to Green Colleges, which highlights schools with strong commitments to environmentally conscious practices and programs and serves as a resource to college applicants seeking schools with exemplary commitments to the environment and sustainability. The University of Richmond has made the list every year.

“The University of Richmond integrates sustainability across academics and extra-curricular activities to ensure all faculty, staff, and students have an opportunity to participate in practices that improve environmental well-being on our campus,” said Director of Sustainability Rob Andrejewski. “To continually make this list is a testament to the great projects focused on sustainability happening on campus and the broader recognition that they are having an impact.”

The 12-year history of recognition coincides with the development of the University’s Office for Sustainability, which was established in 2009. Recent campus sustainability projects include:

  • Operation of a 120-acre solar facility, which adds 40,000 MWh of fossil-free energy to the electricity grid annually.
  • Electric vehicle charging stations located at a variety of locations on campus, including a new installation near Maryland Hall, help decarbonize transportation.
  • The community garden located in the Eco-Corridor includes more than 30 raised beds available to members of the campus community through a lottery system each year.
  • Goats recently returned to campus for a third time to clear invasive plants along the Eco-Corridor. Goat browsing is an environmentally friendly landscape management practice that reduces the need for herbicide and gas-powered equipment.

The Princeton Review’s Green College Guide is released each October, and schools are selected based on data from student surveys about the influence of sustainability issues on their education and life on campus; administration and student support for environmental awareness and conservation efforts; and the visibility and impact of student environmental groups.



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VCUarts renames Fine Arts Building for first African American dean, Dr. Murry N. DePillars

In a ceremony Thursday, VCU unveiled the newly-renamed Murry N. DePillars Building and celebrated the life and legacy of the former dean, professional painter, and art historian whose leadership helped the school emerge as one of the largest art schools in the country.



Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts (VCUarts) has renamed its Fine Arts Building for its first dean.

In a ceremony Thursday, VCU unveiled the newly-renamed Murry N. DePillars Building and celebrated the life and legacy of the former dean, professional painter, and art historian whose leadership helped the school emerge as one of the largest art schools in the country.

During the ceremony, VCU President Michael Rao, VCUarts Dean Carmenita Higginbotham, and Mrs. Mary DePillars, widow of the building’s namesake, gave commemoration remarks in the building’s atrium.

DePillars served as dean of VCUarts from 1976-1995, cultivating a period of immense growth and development and whose artwork and research have been exhibited and published throughout the country. He was also a major contributor to the Black Arts Movement, creating bold and daring depictions of what it meant to be Black in America, and was a founding member of the Chicago-based Black artists’ collective AfriCOBRA.



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Parents are changing their minds on in-person school – in most cases, there are no other options

As the Delta variant of COVID-19 takes foot, some parents who chose an in-person option for their kids are rethinking that. But there may not be an alternative in some districts.



Families with Richmond Public Schools had until June 1 to choose between enrolling virtually or attending classes in person. At that point in the summer, COVID-19 vaccines were widely available to adults, new cases had dropped to less than 200 a day, and almost no one had heard of delta, the highly transmissible variant that now accounts for virtually all new infections across the U.S.

“It seemed like we were not at the end of things, but that there was an end coming,” Yeager said. Her four children — none of whom are old enough to be vaccinated — had managed a year of remote school fairly well. But the encouraging outlook convinced Yeager to enroll them in-person.

By the time cases began climbing, it was too late to change her mind. The vast majority of Virginia school divisions, including Richmond, required families to make a decision about the upcoming semester in late May or early June. Virtual enrollment is now closed, and many are denying an influx of requests from parents and students who changed their minds.

Yeager is one of hundreds of families stuck with face-to-face learning even as a third coronavirus surge casts a pall over the school year. Some districts have already quarantined dozens — or hundreds — of students after COVID-19 exposures. Earlier this week, the Virginia Department of Health urged Amherst County to temporarily close all its secondary schools after an outbreak in the district.

But local divisions are limited in how widely, and for how long, they can close schools thanks to a state law mandating in-person instruction (passed in the early, and optimistic, days of Virginia’s vaccine rollout). Late last summer, a spike in cases spurred the majority of districts to reopen with hybrid or fully remote learning plans. This year, with new infections reaching even higher levels, they don’t have that option. 

Nor are they required to offer remote instruction. “While school divisions need to provide five days of in-person learning to any family who wants it for their students in the fall, school districts are not obligated to provide a virtual option for all students,” Fairfax County reminded families in May. The vast majority of them — 110 out of 132 local divisions — are using Virtual Virginia, a state-run program with its own teachers and curriculum.

Ten districts aren’t offering any virtual option at all, according to Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Education. And some divisions providing their own virtual courses have even tighter restrictions. Fairfax County, for example, is limiting remote learning to students with medical needs documented by a licensed health professional. The deadline to enroll in the program was May 28, and a little more than 400 students, out of roughly 180,000 across the district, are participating.

“Family health/medical conditions are not considered for this program and eligibility is not extended to siblings or other students in a household,” spokesperson Kathleen Miller wrote in a statement on Friday. “Enrolling additional students would require additional staffing, which has already been a significant challenge.” 

Providing both in-person and virtual learning, as many schools have done over the course of the pandemic, have created escalating burdens for local divisions — even with millions of dollars in federal aid. In addition to teacher burnout, administrators have struggled to find enough staff to fill instructional and support positions, especially with regular exposures forcing many into quarantine. In a presentation to lawmakers last fall, state Superintendent James Lane described staffing as one of the biggest challenges facing Virginia’s schools.

Those ongoing needs, combined with the state mandate, offer few incentives for schools to continue providing their own remote learning options. Brian Mott, the executive director for Virtual Virginia, said enrollment in the program was open to any student until their district’s deadline. But he also said planning needs made it difficult to accommodate a wave of later registrations.

“We’ve got to make sure we have the appropriate staff to support them,” Mott said. “The other reason is communication. Students don’t just enroll and start the next day. We need to be setting them up and supporting them as soon as possible.”

Many local districts are also limiting virtual enrollment to students who can show they were successful with the modality — another process that takes time, he added. Despite the division-wide policies to curb late registrations, though, that’s exactly what’s happening across the state. Mott said there have been more than 1,200 enrollment requests from individual schools in recent weeks, most of which involve multiple students.

Virtual Virginia is offering a “limited number” of late enrollment slots, with a priority on students with medical needs, students from military families, or transfers who entered a school division after the cut-off date, Pyle said. But some individual districts are seeing even higher demand.

The waitlist for Henrico’s Virtual Academy now sits at more than 3,000 students — an increase of around 800 compared to two weeks prior, the Henrico Citizen reported

The district is attempting to hire more teachers to accommodate the waitlist, according to the Citizen. Other divisions, though, are simply denying the requests.

“Students who have not chosen the virtual option will not be permitted to change to virtual,” said Diana Gulotta, a spokesperson for Prince William County Schools, the second-largest division in the state. “Those with documented health conditions can apply for homebound services.” 

Unlike Fairfax County, which is Virginia’s largest school district, Prince William isn’t currently requiring its staff to be vaccinated.

Richmond is another division mandating vaccines for its staff, and Yeager said that’s provided her with some degree of comfort. But while she understands the constraints facing local school districts, she’s frustrated — like many families — over the lack of flexibility amid a constantly changing pandemic.  

Delta has changed the conversation, she said. Research on earlier variants indicated that children were less susceptible to COVID-19 than adults and displayed milder symptoms when they contracted the virus. But the rise of delta has corresponded with worrying reports of increasing pediatric cases and hospitalizations, especially in hard-hit areas. Ballad Health, for example — the primary hospital system in far southwestern Virginia — has reported several COVID-19 admissions in their pediatric ICU.

“We are seeing children dying, though I know, intellectually, the chances of that happening are very small,” Yeager said. It’s still not clear if delta presents any more of a risk to children than previous variants. Public health experts have pointed out that pediatric hospitalizations are still the same proportion of the total, but that the overall number is rising given the higher transmissibility of the variant. 

Right now, though, delta poses the greatest risk to the unvaccinated — a population that still includes children under 12. Authorization for that age group isn’t expected before the end of this year, according to some federal officials. And many parents aren’t willing to take the risk.

“I would love to be wrong,” Yeager said. “But delta is so terribly infectious. Kids can’t be masked all the time. I don’t see how it’s going to be other than … I can’t even think of a polite way to put it.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.



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