Much attention has been paid — and rightfully so — to students’ physical health and academic progress during an anything-but-normal 2020-21 year.

There is another vitally important area, however, where schools are supporting students.

Area districts have worked to provide additional mental health supports for students in a time where everyone is feeling additional stress and anxiety.

Students are finding themselves isolated from friends and classmates as they shift to remote learning.

At the high school level, students have been learning from home since Nov. 18 under state order. Most local districts have had elementary and middle school students remote for periods as well.

On Friday, Dec. 18, the state said it would allow high schools to resume in-person classes this week, however, all local districts are currently on a two-week holiday break.

With the back and forth, schools have had to find creative new ways to still reach students and provide mental health and wellness support. Officials from local districts say those needs must be met before any real learning can happen.

“We’ve known for a while that social-emotional needs of students come before academic needs,” said Todd Tulgestke, assistant superintendent of 6-12 instruction at West Ottawa. “If you don’t meet the social-emotional first, you’re likely not going to get to academic needs.”

Stressed, anxious, overwhelmed

The COVID-19 pandemic has created stress and anxiety for many, and K-12 students are not immune. Add in switches back-and-forth from in-person learning to remote learning and many students are feeling overwhelmed.

“I think stress is a really good word for right now,” said Todd Kamstra, social worker at Zeeland East High School. “I think it’s universal at some level in terms of stress levels. People are obviously more stressed than ever before because of everything that’s going on. Within that, you’re seeing situations that maybe wouldn’t normally be so stressful, but because of all the other stressors, it becomes an issue or a concern.”

At West Ottawa, a recent survey of high school students with more than 1,000 responses showed that nearly 60 percent said they were feeling stressed and anxious.

“Feeling stressed and being overwhelmed have probably been the top two emotions we’ve seen,” said WOHS North Campus Wellness Coach Danielle Barnes. “Heightened stress, being overwhelmed, feeling worried, those are very common emotions right now. We’re trying to reassure our students that it’s OK to not be OK.”

Barnes added that school traditionally has been a safe place for kids, and that loss is felt even more deeply.

“I think in the pandemic and the shift to being remote, trying to figure out how to be as successful in an online schooling world, it’s stressing a lot of kids out,” she said. “They don’t have that outlet of support that school provides for a lot of kids. Not having that safe space can be stressful.”

During a Holland Public Schools Board of Education meeting Dec. 7, Assistant Director of Student Services Anna Clawson shared results of a recent mental health screening with high school students.

Completed just before the building shifted to remote learning, 303 students were surveyed, mostly in grades 9 and 10. Of those, 12 percent said they had suicidal ideations in the previous two weeks or wanted to talk to someone about suicidal ideations; 12 percent answered similarly about self-harm.

There was some overlap between those two groups, as Clawson said followup resulted in 17 percent of those surveyed referred for services.

Providing during the pandemic

With less ability to push into classrooms and meet with students in-person, counselors and wellness coaches have adjusted to support students in new ways.

From Zoom meetings, to virtual offices to home visits, schools have found ways to reach students.

Barnes and the rest of the counseling office at West Ottawa set up a virtual counseling office, containing resources, contact information and even the staff in animated form.

“Basically, it’s in a PowerPoint format, but it has our Bitmoji characters of ourselves in a virtual office,” Barnes said. “It links to different things for students to support themselves.

“We have links to resources, where to go to get access to food, healthcare, mental healthcare. It has contact information for each of our counseling department members and links to appointment calendars.”

The department also created a virtual wellness room over the summer that has additional resources, self-care tips, visual relaxation strategies and more.

Kamstra said high school administrators have done home visits in addition to virtual ones. The district is working hard to reach out to students, because they don’t always reach out when they need help.

“In regards to remote learning, we’re trying to rely on Zoom as much as anybody else,” he said. “In some instances, we’ve done home visits when we’ve struggled to get a hold of students via email and Zoom.

“(With students remote) we’re not crossing paths the way we typically would. The concern is isolation. Is that leading to struggling more? Absolutely. But are students reaching out more? I don’t know that they are, that’s the unsettling part.”

Clawson said during the Dec. 7 meeting that HPS was working on developing social-emotional learning lessons to share with students focusing on identifying signs of stress and anxiety in themselves and friends, where to get help and self-care strategies.

The district also put out a mental health check-in video on YouTube recently.

Tulgestke added he feels his district was relatively well positioned to provide these services due to significant investments in mental wellness in years past.

“Nobody well positioned to take on a pandemic, but had started addressing this a few years ago,” he said. “We’ve invested a lot in terms of mental wellness staffing. We’ve also adopted a social-emotional learning curriculum in K-8.”

Dealing with tragic losses, and preventing more

The area has seen the extremes of young people struggling with mental wellness, with at least a pair of deaths by suicide in recent months. Holland Christian graduate Ian Miskelley and Zeeland West High School junior Nathan Wilson were both tragically lost to suicide.

“It’s a terribly tragic thing for so many,” Kamstra said. “Any district, any community that experiences a suicide, the ripples are so deep and far reaching.

“It’s hard with feelings of hurt and anger, but at the same time hopeful that we can get to a place that we don’t experience that again.”

Kamstra urges those struggling to use resources that are available, such as those available on district websites, the Ottawa County’s 24-hour Crisis Line at 866-512-4357, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Mosaic Counseling at 616-842-9160 and Community Mental Heath of Ottawa County at 616-393-5681.

“That would be one thing I’m hopeful for, so that no one has to go through this again anywhere,” he said.

Teachers struggle, too

Students aren’t the only ones in the school setting dealing with adverse mental effects of this unusual school year.

“Even for teachers, their worlds are different,” Kamstra said. “A lot are teaching from home. They want to be in school and with kids.”

Tulgestke cited a local nonprofit called Opportunity Thrive that has partnered with local schools to provide mental wellness support to educators.

“It’s not only students who need supports,” he said. “We’re trying to look out for our teachers. In order for students’ needs to be met, we have to meet the needs of our staff as well.”

According to the Opportunity Thrive website, the organization has worked with several other districts as well, including the OAISD, Holland, Holland Christian, Zeeland, Black River and Saugatuck.

— Contact reporter Mitchell Boatman at mboatman@hollandsentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @SentinelMitch.



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