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Counselors respond to COVID

Anxiety among students and staff a focus in pandemic school year
School counselors Mike Thompson, Megan Amundson and Heather Pentico reported on the district’s Return to Learn mental health efforts during a Sept. 17 board of education meeting. (photos by Doug Lindner)

SOLON– Things are different, and that causes anxiety.
Recognizing stress and dedicating class time to talk about school in a pandemic world are some of the steps taken by guidance counselors to deal with the emotional well-being of students and staff in the Solon Community School District (SCSD).
If a student feels unwell emotionally or mentally, overall wellness will decrease and school performance goes down, observed elementary counselor Megan Amundson at a Sept. 17 board of education meeting.
The student might start to exhibit psychosomatic symptoms, feeling ill and wanting to go home, she said.
“We’re really trying to get ahead of that rather than acting reactively,” Amundson noted.
Monitoring the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and mental health of SCSD students was a pillar added to the district’s strategic plan in 2019, Superintendent Davis Eidahl noted, and was also a big part of the 2020 Return to Learn plan.
Amundson (Lakeview Elementary/Solon Intermediate School), Heather Pentico (Solon Middle School) and Mike Thompson (Solon High School) developed the district’s response and reported on their efforts during the board meeting.
There are five key components to the SCSD mental health plan, Pentico explained: Routines and Communication, Relationships and Well-Being, Sense of Safety, Connectedness and Hope.
The three counselors took turns highlighting actions taken in support of the goals at each building and discussed future plans with board members.
Safety was the number one priority as the district opened its doors, Pentico said, and part of that was trying to make school feel like school.
Staff members have adopted mitigation procedures, and establishing routines in the classroom and maintaining clear communication are crucial to promote a sense of safety and predictability.
Nurturing the relationship between teachers and students, and having established expectations lay the groundwork for stability in the event a class or building has to move instruction online, she explained.
At the middle school where students are divided into cohort groups, Pentico said, time is set aside to provide students a forum in a safe environment to share with their peers about their experiences. Solon Intermediate School is running similar meetings.
A Question of the Day aligns with the Devereux Students Strengths Assessment (DESSA), a standardized, strength-based SEL test measuring the social and emotional competence of students.
The district implemented the screening tool in 2019-20, Amundson noted, but the data was cut short by the truncated school year.
Scheduling the first full DESSA assessment is a goal of the group, she said, to obtain a better picture of how students are feeling.
Prior to the start of school, professional development time featured Please Pass the Love (PPTL), a Des Moines-based non-profit working to support mental health and wellness efforts.
The training focused on identifying emotional distress in students, Amundson said, and PPTL also assisted in generating data and action plans to help teachers recognize common mental health concerns and ways teachers can be part of a student’s emotional development.
Teachers are also susceptible to stress, and part of the Return to Learn mental health plan attempts to address staff self-care, she said.
“For everything to run well, you need to make sure you take time for yourself,” she said of teachers.
At Lakeview, teacher-to-teacher care groups were piloted to give staff members time to connect and build relationships.
At the high school, Mike Thompson noted, it’s little more challenging for Social Emotional Learning because of the lack of curriculum tailored to teenagers.
Principal Zach Wigle and staff have emphasized developing relationships and getting to know the students, he said. On the day of the board meeting, he observed, a discussion was held with students about the modified high school schedule, and whether it should be continued after the first four-and-a-half weeks of classes.
In the coming week, Thompson said he would begin developing and delivering self-awareness lessons to students to help them identify their emotions and their impact.
The acceleration of mental health’s importance in the district provided an opportunity for the counselors collectively to reach out to students and families and offer assistance, he said.
“The initial contact we’ve had with classrooms is really about letting students know what we do, how we can help support them and how they can get in touch with us if they need us,” Pentico explained.
The next steps, Amundson said, are to find a consistent check-in point for wellness, possibly establishing an electronic way to keep tabs on how students are feeling, to schedule the first DESSA screening and develop online mental health tools for families if classes were to become virtual.
The district will also continue to be intentional about teaching the skills of successful learners, monitoring wellness with the same attention paid to academics like reading writing and math, she said.
Pentico agreed, noting mental health assessment needs to be a new normal.
“Social, emotional skills are teachable,” she said. “Just like any skill. We can teach those skills, so we should be able to assess those skills.”
Board member Adam Haluska asked the counselors what changes they had noticed in students.
“Kids are very resilient,” Pentico responded. “They come to school and they’re happy to be at school.”
But there is a level of anxiety because there’s change and things are different, she acknowledged.
There are some students who have struggled with the cohort concept at the middle school, she added, not being able to be with their friends.
There have also been positive COVID-19 cases among students, she said, and that causes anxiety as well.
“My sister’s friend knows somebody that has COVID. What does that mean for me?” she said. “And those kids reaching out because they’re very nervous about that. It’s just uncertainty for them.”
At Lakeview Elementary, Amundson said parents and students were having a harder time separating.
“They had, what, five months together?” she said. Going from the relatively unstructured environment at home to a more structured environment at school was an even harder challenge this year, she observed.
Thompson said high school students experienced a sense of loss.
“These juniors I think transitioned to their senior year. They’ve got a picture in their mind what it should look like,” he said.
Instead, they can no longer just hang out in the building, they can’t be early, he noted. It goes against what the district wants for its building– to be a safe place for kids, he added.
It’s different, he said. It isn’t how students pictured it would be.
That’s why it’s important to give students a forum to talk about it, Pentico suggested. Create a structure to take control of what can be controlled and turn it into a positive, she said.
Board member Rick Jedlicka was glad to hear counselors were letting students know of their availability.
He also expressed his appreciation for extending services to staff as well as students.
Board member Dan Coons observed the district was fortunate to have identified mental health and wellness as a priority two years ago, allowing a lot of tools to be in place when the pandemic struck.
He thanked the administration for its efforts.
When asked by Board President Tim Brown if there were other resources needed, the counselors replied they were just scratching the surface of the tools available through DESSA.
Amundson said counselors didn’t have the opportunity last year to grasp the full potential of the program (a full screening includes 72 questions) and needed time to gather and access data.
Counselors have shouldered a load, Brown observed, along with school nurses.
“As long as everything’s going good on the surface, no one sees how hard you guys are paddling underneath,” he said.