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Students leave Clara Peterson Elementary School in Paxton on Friday, Sep. 18.

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As school districts return to the classroom, assessing students for social and emotional needs has been a key part of the conversation. In preparation for re-opening, local districts have taken various approaches to the challenge of promoting positive mental health among students.

GCMS

The Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley School District has added a social worker, going from two on staff to three.

“We knew the need for social/emotional support was growing,” Superintendent Jeremy Darnell said. “That was a high priority for our district.”

This fall, the district chose to have in-person classes four days each week in recognition of the need for social and emotional well-being.

The district received a donation of 1,000 colorful character-bearing cloth face masks that social workers can give to students to increase their comfort in wearing the coverings.

“The designs are fun and exciting,” Darnell said.

The district is using social media to share encouraging photos, videos, documents, tips and infographics with families; for example a “Falcon Flyer” highlighted the fact that local schools had to close for five weeks in 1918 during the Spanish influenza pandemic and for a short time in 1938 because of scarlet fever. “Events such as these are a reflection of the grit and camaraderie which define our community,” the newsletter read. “Schools may close, and seasons may change, but the community perserveres and continues to serve families while keeping all children safe.”

The GCMS school district is also profiling new staff members and streaming live webinars with updates and addressing questions about returning to learning. The first such webinar had over 600 views, Darnell noted. “Our community was definitely engaging,” he said.

PBL

Paxton-Buckley Loda High School and Junior High social worker Kristina Schuler and Clara Peterson social workers Erin Graham and Geddy Grove agree that creating a positive social and emotional climate promotes student achievement, lifelong character development, prosocial-emotional regulation skills and the ability to understand social situations and cues.

As the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district prepared for this school year, administration across the district emphasized the importance of building relationships early with students and surveyed parents to assess the social and emotional needs of students. The primary focus during the first days of school has been building relationships. In addition, social/emotional support staff (school social workers and guidance counselors) have been checking in with students and staff. In kindergarten through eighth grade, social/emotional lessons are taught in all classrooms. At the high-school level, students and staff are participating in “check and connects,” a program that engages marginalized students.

The social workers say the students in their district have experienced many of the same stressors as all students have experienced -- loss and thus grief.

Many of the students have been isolated from their social groups or unable to participate in their usual activities. There has been food insecurity in some homes and financial stressors. Having reliable Internet in a rural district can also be a stressor. 

Prior to the start of the school year, the school district surveyed parents to identify any stressors or trauma that students experienced. Staff used that information to drive how they supported students as they returned to school. 

The district is continuously seeking feedback from parents, students and staff through district surveys, social media and the district app. That information is used to drive improvements. Even prior to the pandemic, administration had an open door policy in which parents, students and staff were encouraged to provide feedback and suggestions for improvements.  

Some students worry about being sick. The social workers say it’s difficult to plan for an unknown future when it’s not known when and if things will ever be normal again.

The district continues to try to meet each student’s individual needs but now is trying to do it within the safety parameters outlined in conjunction with the local public health department. Staff members are mindful of social distancing, wearing masks, cleaning between students and frequently washing hands. The social workers are continuing to make sure families are aware of local resources and how to access them.

The district relies on parents, teachers, administrators and other staff members to refer students for social services. If families’ needs are beyond the scope of school resources, then the district makes referrals for families to outside agencies. Within the school district there are many community-supported resources including a backpack food program, school supplies, winter coats and clothing. The district also provides information to families about local resources and support. 

The social workers also refer families to two local mental health service agencies, Community Resource & Counseling Center and Gibson Behavior and Wellness.