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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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Henrico Schools release five possible options under consideration for fall return

Henrico County Public Schools will provide all students with customizable learning pathways for the summer and is considering five options for a return to school for the 2020-21 school year. Here’s what they could look like.

RVAHub Staff

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Henrico County Public Schools will provide all students with customizable learning pathways for the summer and is considering five options for a return to school for the 2020-21 school year.

In an attempt to buttress summer learning and mitigate the effects of instructional time lost to the closure for coronavirus, all of the school division’s students will have access to prescribed learning pathways for the summer months. In some cases, students’ plans will be optional, and in others, will be required. The avenues will include both asynchronous learning (online learning that happens on students’ schedules) and synchronous learning (online education that happens in real-time, delivered by a teacher at a specific time).

The five options for the 2020-21 school year include a full return to school campuses for all students, an all-online option, and three options that would combine the two. All options that involve returning to school facilities would include new, possibly unprecedented, safety protocols for successfully reopening public schools.

“This summer and fall will be about flexibility, creativity, and above all, safety,” said Amy Cashwell, HCPS superintendent. “We’re going to keep working hard to find innovative ways to support all our students as they continue learning this summer, and to prepare for a safe return to school in the fall, no matter what that may look like.”

Summer student pathways

Summer learning pathways are part of HCPS’ “Henrico Edflix” learning plan and will enable all students to build skills directly related to the grade-level content they will encounter during the 2020-21 school year. Some of the pathways are designed for students who may have gaps in learning, while others are designed for review, enrichment and acceleration. There are also several exceptional education options under consideration for students with disabilities. The plan will include students who, in other years, might have taken part in HCPS’ Summer Academy, accelerated learning or extended-school-year programs. For details about the pathways, go to HCPS’ On-Demand Learning webpage athttps://henricoschools.us/covid19/ondemandlearning/.

Fall options for 2020-21 school year

Henrico County Public Schools is considering five possible formats for 2020-21 school attendance, depending on factors related to the pandemic. New safety measures would be adopted for on-campus options, and under all options, the pace of learning would be adjusted to include content students may have missed in the spring. The five options under consideration are:

  • Option A: On-campus learning. All students would be back on campus, with new, possibly unprecedented, safety measures in place.
  • Option B: Remote learning that is structured and enhanced. All students would participate in required daily remote learning that includes graded schoolwork. While HCPS’ March closure necessitated emergency distance-learning measures, this option would more closely resemble the traditional expectations of a typical school day.
  • Option C: Interrupted on-campus learning. All students would be back on campus for several weeks or months at a time, which could be interrupted by periods of structured remote learning in response to health concerns that may arise.
  • Option D: Hybrid learning. One portion of the student body would attend classes on campus for a period of time, while another portion would learn remotely. The two groups might switch after a number of months, or alternate days on campus to build a blended learning environment. Having fewer students on campus would make it easier to implement distancing guidelines.
  • Option E: Parallel learning. Part of the student body would attend all classes on campus while another group would learn remotely for the entire school year because of choice or necessity. This option would not require students to alternate days, unless a student needed to shift from one track to the other.

Each of the five options would require extensive coordination and planning by HCPS staff members. At this time a final plan has not been determined. The school division will make additional announcements as plans continue to be developed in accordance with health and safety guidelines.

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College admissions deans from multiple schools to offer Virtual College Night May 27th

Virginia high school students who want to learn more about the college admission process and financial aid can attend Virtual College Night for Virginia at 6 p.m. on May 27.

RVAHub Staff

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Virginia high school students who want to learn more about the college admission process and financial aid can attend Virtual College Night for Virginia at 6 p.m. on May 27.

The virtual opportunity is the brainchild of admission deans from the University of Richmond, University of Virginia, Washington and Lee University, and William & Mary. The deans were batting around ideas on how to reach high school students during this time of social distancing. They recognized that many topics are important to potential college students. Rather than provide all of the information individually, they decided to join forces to create the Virtual College Night.

The pilot evening, which will be held via Zoom, will focus on central and south central Virginia. Students who have expressed interest in the four institutions will receive an invitation via email.

If the evening is successful, Virtual College Nights will be scheduled in other regions.

Admission deans will provide information on college search, application review and selection, financial aid, and trends in higher education.

The deans include:

  • Sally Stone Richmond, Washington and Lee University
  • Greg Roberts, University of Virginia
  • Gil Villanueva, University of Richmond
  • Tim Wolfe, William & Mary

They will cover the topics in about 40 minutes followed by a 20 minute Q&A.

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Henrico County Public Schools considering starting school before Labor Day in 2021

The 2020-21 school year is already scheduled to begin the day after Labor Day, which is Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. The proposal would apply to the 2021-2022 school year and going forward.

RVAHub Staff

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In early March, Henrico County Public Schools introduced the idea of a pre-Labor Day start to the 2021-22 school year. That was before the educational landscape shifted with HCPS’ closure to combat the coronavirus pandemic. At its May 14 work session, the Henrico School Board decided to revisit the issue and consider two calendar options for 2021-22 — one with a pre-Labor Day start and another with a more traditional post-Labor Day start.

Members of the public are invited to share their thoughts on the two options by taking a survey, open until June 3 at 8 a.m. The survey is available by going to HCPS’ website, henricoschools.us, and looking under “Hot Topics,” or by going to henricoschools.us/2021-22-calendar-options/.

The two calendar options under consideration for 2021-22 are:

  • Calendar Option A (pre-Labor Day start.) School would begin on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. School would end on Friday, June 3, 2022.
  • Calendar Option B (traditional post-Labor Day start.) School would begin on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. School would end on Friday, June 17, 2022.

At the work session, conducted in a virtual format, the Board also considered a third option, where students would attend school year-round, with intermittent breaks. After discussing the “extended school year” idea, the Board decided to eliminate that option, citing a desire for more research and collaboration with other school divisions in central Virginia.

While the first and last days of school differ, as well as student and staff holidays, all options would include the same number of instructional days.

Possible advantages of a pre-Labor Day start (Option A) include:

  • Provides two additional weeks of instruction before International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement testing, resulting in less time between the completion of testing and the end of the school year.
  • The academic calendar would more closely align with the start of fall extracurricular activities, as well as college and university schedules.
  • Provides at least a four-day break for Labor Day weekend.

Possible advantages of a post-Labor Day start (Option B) include:

  • Maintains traditional HCPS school calendar.
  • Keeps intact the construction schedule for the new J.R. Tucker and Highland Springs high schools and the expansion of Holladay Elementary School (a pre-Labor Day schedule would move up the construction deadline).
  • Maintains the length of the 2021 summer break for students and HCPS staff members (a pre-Labor Day start would require a one-time reduction of summer break).

There are no significant budgetary differences between the two options.

The 2020-21 school year is already scheduled to begin the day after Labor Day, which is Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

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