Students spend at least seven hours a day at school — and that’s not counting extracurricular activities. Now they are passing those hours at home, cut off physically from their friends and classmates, their routines, and many of their passions, be it sports, drama, music, compiling the school yearbook or (fill in the blank).

It’s understandable these young people feel their world has been snatched away from them. Last week’s closure of schools due to the COVID-19 virus had school staff scrambling to send home classwork, devise online learning plans, and coordinate meal delivery.

In this new world, districts have been trying to offer students “lesson plans” in mental health too.

For Penn Yan students already connected with school counselors, individual care plans were put in place in the day and a half before school closed, said Penn Yan Superintendent Howard Dennis. Seneca Falls Superintendent Jeramy Clingerman said counselors in that district reached out to specific students among their caseloads.

Interestingly, screens, often the source of many child/parent conflicts, are facilitating the contact and interaction students crave while social distancing at home. Teachers are using Zoom or Google Hangout software to hold classes virtually, with all students “present.” Counselors are using similar technologies to keep in touch with their young clients.

“Some kids want to be more direct in their contact,” said Dennis, adding that phone calls with counselors are welcomed as well.

In Seneca County, students already connected with the Seneca County Counseling Center’s school-based clinic were informed they would receive telehealth or telephone services from their clinicians, who would contact them to arrange those sessions.

Edith Kirby Mann, the former executive director of Safe Harbors who now provides therapy in her Penn Yan counseling practice, stresses the message that “different is OK.” And, that translates to a different way to deliver counseling support as well.

“This is for now. Kids are already on their screens; this is not exactly new,” she said.

It is newer, however, for many providers.

Mann noted high-speed internet was being installed in her office to facilitate teletherapy, and she has been in contact with play therapists across the country for tips in administering that type of therapy when she is not face to face with a client. Insurance companies are changing policies to adapt, also, she added.

The COVID-19 crisis deeply affects all students, not just those already struggling with trauma or other emotional challenges in their lives. And teachers, not just counselors, are cognizant of that.

“Our entire staff has been reaching out to the kids,” Dennis said. “We do know the beginning is the toughest part.”

In Seneca Falls, a letter was sent home with students alerting families that on-call school counselors are available from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays; an on-call calendar was attached, as well as email addresses. For immediate safety concerns, Clingerman said 911 or 211 should be contacted first, but if students want to speak with a counselor he suggested emailing them first to determine the best way and time to connect.

Tonya Russell, director of student services for the Geneva school district, said counselors there are offering phone-in office hours, which have been communicated to families for each building. Counselors have been reaching out online through Talking Points, Schoology, emails and Google Meet conferencing with groups of students. A list of community resources was also sent home with secondary students, she said.

Online school spirit

Districts also are exploring how to promote school togetherness online.

At Seneca Falls Middle School and Mynderse Academy, this is school spirit week, and the activities have been modified. Depending on the day, students are encouraged to send in photos of themselves working in their pajamas or alongside their pets. Russell said North Street Elementary School has continued to do morning announcements, and a fun YouTube video was recorded and distributed last Friday — with footage of the principal on a walk, the Pledge of Allegiance, and what one teacher was preparing for lunch.

As staffers become more comfortable using technology to interact with their students, Clingerman believes more ways will be identified to help students remain engaged with each other and their teachers.

School counselors are sharing tips on district websites on how students and families can stay emotionally healthy during this time. In fact, most districts have created COVID-19 tabs as a way to share news and resources with parents/guardians. These sites include links on how to talk to kids about COVID-19, helpful tips for students during school closure, even links to virtual tours of national parks or college campuses.

Top at the list for many of these school-generated suggestions is making and sticking to a routine that includes chunks of time for schoolwork, fitness and relaxation. Mann said children should be part of that discussion because it empowers them.

“This is forcing upon us the opportunity to think creatively and solve problems,” she said. “Even 7-year-olds can master problems and be involved in setting a routine.”

Other tips include:

  • Staying in the moment and not looking ahead too much.
  • Reducing exposure to social media and the news.
  • Staying active.
  • Connecting with family and friends.
  • Practicing gratitude and relaxation techniques and keeping a journal.
  • Taking in nature, listening and looking at all it has to offer.

Russell agreed that making space for children to ask questions and encouraging discussion is important. And, a child’s age matters.

For very young students, worries about the virus demand a different conversation than the concerns of seniors who are missing rites of passage like prom or senior trips.

Russell advised sometimes turning off the screens that are connecting us now more than ever.

“Make time in your day to put technology away and talk,” she said. “In these times we can have some of the most meaningful and thoughtful conversations. This is time for us to embrace these moments.”

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