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Mid-Ohio Valley educators concerned for student mental health

The marquee at Van Devender Middle School sends a message to students who are stuck at home due to a statewide stay-at-home order in West Virginia. Schools in Ohio and West Virginia are closed to help slow and prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Photo Provided)

PARKERSBURG — Educators are reaching out to students to provide counseling and mental health services during the COVID-19 quarantine.

Being stuck at home all day and unable to spend time with friends and loved ones can be rough at any age, but educators say these times can be especially trying for children who have come to rely on school as a place of safety.

“I worry about the isolation for my students who are already depressed or who struggle to make connections,” said Van Devender Middle School counselor Christie Bixman. “I worry about my students who are in abusive homes, who have caregivers who are nonexistent or who have caregivers who are still working and they are alone all day, probably with little siblings to care for.”

Bixman said she has set up weekly text messages to students, sent out flyers with food distribution points to all students, set up a Microsoft TEAMS classroom to issue daily challenges/projects and sends frequent reminders to participate in those activities. Bixman also is creating a Google document which allows students to “do a mental health check in with me.”

Bixman said while she has created “virtual counseling” hours, no students have yet participated.

Andrea Moore, a counselor at Neale Elementary School, reads a book to students online. Teachers and counselors are finding different ways to check on students to ensure they maintain good mental health during the COVID-19 shutdown. (Photo Provided)

“The parents are very responsive through Google Voice,” Bixman said. “They tell me what’s been going on, how they are, how the student is, if they are finding enough food, if they are able to get online and do school work.”

Bixman said finding internet access for students can be difficult. Some students don’t have any, “or at least, very inconsistent internet,” she said. Often an entire family shares a single cell phone, she said.

Vandy Principal Darlene Parsons said teachers, staff and administrators are using a variety of formats to reach out to students and family, with many teachers creating virtual classrooms to allow students to interact with them and their peers.

Parsons said she often contacts parents and families, either electronically, through phone calls or even by mail. Live weekly drawings are done to encourage students to pick up homework packets and to participate in online classes.

Parsons said Vandy continues to work closely with Child Protective Services to quickly address any issues of neglect or abuse, and all employees work to make sure students have a caring adult to turn to if they need.

An online banner shows virtual office hours and numerous ways to stay in contact with Van Devender Middle School counselor Christie Bixman. Officials are going online to extend mental health services to students during the COVID-19 shutdown. (Photo Provided)

“Our sign out front even says ‘we miss you’ because we want students to hear that message loud and clear,” she said.

Andrea Moore, counselor for Neale Elementary School, said those are the kinds of concerns she has grappled with as well since schools closed last month.

“I know that school is a place where a lot of kids get attention, love and support,” she said. “For my higher-risk students, I’m concerned that they aren’t getting the support they need, and also for some who don’t have the best home life. Food and having someone make it is a concern.”

Moore said the initial slate of food deliveries allowed her to see her students and check in with families, but a statewide stay-at-home order ended those kinds of practices.

“When that happened, I created a private Facebook group for Neale School Counseling and invited parents I knew to join and asked them to invite other parents,” she said.

Moore often posts links to services online, information about food pantries and distributions, does read-alouds for students or provides links and information on mindfulness techniques to help children deal with stress.

Moore said she created a Google number so she can more easily call or text parents to check on the students.

“That’s been the most successful as parents can easily text back,” she said.

Moore said while she has been concerned about student access to online materials and programs, most families maintain some sort of contact, and Moore frequently calls or texts families that are not as connected.

“The parents I’ve reached out to have been very appreciative of the support and contact I’ve made, and they all know their student is more than welcome to call or text me, even if it’s just to say hi,” she said.

Mike Seebaugh, school psychologist assistant for Belpre City Schools, said officials continue to reach out to students and families to offer assistance, whether it be academic, social or mental health related.

“I have a list of students, a living document, and since we’ve been off school, each day I’ve been making a few calls down through the list, checking in to see if they have any needs,” Seebaugh said. “I’m maintaining contact with a lot of our online learners as well.”

Seebaugh said part of the concern, however, are those children without the ability to get online. In most cases, they or their families can be contacted by phone, but Seebaugh said even during the stay-at-home order, he has had to make home visits to check on students.

“Home visits are pretty much passe at this moment, though I have done a couple. We’re observing that social distance model, just letting them know we are there,” he said. “Just about everything we’re doing at this point is online, though.”

Seebaugh said when there is a mental health services need, administrators work to get them help and to follow up with those students later.

“We use every online tool we can,” he said.

Seebaugh said in this instance, the small size of the school system is a benefit, allowing administrators and teachers to better keep track of students and to identify those in need.

“We have regular Zoom team meetings to discuss and identify high-risk students,” he said. “We have pretty deep relationships with our students. We know a lot about our students, a lot about their families and their needs. We feel pretty good about where we are right now.”

“In Ohio, they loosened the regulations concerning how we deliver services, so they are allowing us to do phone and telehealth, so we are using video to connect with kids, or by phone,” said Douglas Pfeifer, CEO of Life and Purpose Behavioral Health, which provides mental health services and support for five Washington County school systems, including Belpre and Marietta. “We are still doing some in-home and in the community, but most has been telehealth.”

“We’ve had to be creative and thoughtful about how we do this so that we can reach kids,” he said. “We were working with well over 300 kids in five school districts, about 20-some schools. We’re certainly not going to see as many kids right now because a lot of them don’t have the technology, some we just can’t get a hold of them. We’ve tried to work collaboratively with the schools to get a hold of people, connect with them and let them know how we can provide care.”

Pfeifer said maintaining those relationships during such a difficult time is equally important, as social distancing can also lead to social isolation.

“The biggest loss here is the loss of connection. Losing that social connection is going to have damaging effects for us,” he said. “We are encouraging people to reach out for services, to not let those mental health services go.”

Contact Michael Erb at merb@newsandsentinel.com.

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