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Students mental health still at risk with continued pandemic

Sunnyside ramps up efforts with help from teachers
Posted at 6:55 AM, Aug 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-11 09:55:59-04

TUCSON, Ariz. — Students mental health continues to be top of mind as the school year gets underway.

Pima County reported suicides spiked over the summer because of the COVID-19 crisis – and that included a handful of minors.

The school year has already started for Sunnyside students – remotely.

The district says counselors and teachers are ramping up efforts to reach out to at-risk students. Schools have not opened their classrooms to students – yet.

There's still no word on exactly when that will happen. Many superintendents are predicting -- after the first semester to be on the safe side.

So Sunnyside counselors have been preparing for that scenario for months.

Student surveys went out in June after being off campus since March. The results showed “A lot of them said they wanted to come back in person. And to connect with their fellow classmates,” said Elizabeth Allen, who oversees the mental health program at Sunnyside.

She’s not surprised. The research has been clear for years. Isolation and loneliness is bad for health -- physically and mentally.

School is a way for at risk-students to escape abuse and neglect at home.

Allen is also watching for emotionally vulnerable students who could become depressed and disengaged the longer they remain off campus. “So we know come return to school time we'll reach out to all of our kiddos again and see how much help do you need again.”

A daunting task for counselors, especially in elementary schools, since there's an extreme scarcity of counselors in Arizona — a ratio of 905 to 1 -- the worst in the country.

Sunnyside sits around that ratio so the district is relying on teachers to help monitor students in their vitual settings, which requires more training.

“Counselors would hear things in the hallway or they'd see a child's behavior change, but now it's different. Now I'm looking at you online. So what does that look like. What do I need to pay attention to and some of the teachers expressed I don't know what to look for,” said Allen.

Allen says it's becoming a pressing priority during the pandemic.

The U.S. Health Department says teachers and counselors submit 1/5 of all reports alleging abuse and neglect.

So the district formulated a plan to blend social emotional learning into the curriculum, which becomes part of their academic profile. “A lot of the counselors in our district within our district have done a really good job of providing strategies and resources for their teachers to say there are things you might want to look for,” she said.

Allen says the state has also stepped up. The Education Department is working with AHCCCS to make sure schools have the funds to get outside help.

“While a counselor services 905 children, if there's a child that is going more towards the extreme of needing more intensive support, then that counselor can reach out to that outside agency and make the connection,” said Allen.

That's another challenge though since Arizona ranks at the bottom for access to mental health care.

Meantime, Sunnyside counselors are expecting to work outside the traditional school models, particularly for students who have no escape -- no private time -- to talk about their true feelings.

“So you need to go to your backyard well when it's 105 it's a little difficult to sit in the backyard at noon and have a counseling session so where do we need to adjust as a district to say let's do your session at eight in the morning or maybe we do it at 6 o'clock at night because it's cooler outside in your backyard,” he said.

Allen says parents can help their kids get through the emotional toll of the pandemic.

It's important, she says, to keep the school day as close to normal as possible.

“Really keep your child on a schedule, make sure that it's a school related schedule. They're trying to make it more like small block hours so that students feel like they're part of the community,“ said Allen.

Allen strongly urges parents to talk to their children -- or have them write their feeling down and if they can't get their child to open up then suggest talking to a teacher or counselor.