When schools closed during the first wave of the pandemic in March 2020, like many other parents, Amy Luke suddenly found herself balancing working from home while helping her children adjust to completely altered routines.

Her son Kellen, 8, who has non-verbal autism, did not immediately respond well to the loss of his established routine. His frustration led to several outbursts through last spring and summer, Luke said.

But as Kellen adjusted, Luke started noticing behavioral changes with her eldest child, Talia, 11, last fall. Her school pivoted back and forth between virtual and in-person learning last year.

Talia, who has always loved school and was outgoing, was getting distracted during her virtual lessons. Her ability to stay focused on the classwork, her inability to get her teacher’s attention over a chorus of other children speaking throughout the virtual lesson, started to affect her. Grades became an issue and her anxiety grew.

“I know Talia is not alone and there are so many kids that are struggling right now,” said Luke. “I’m always hearing from other parents who have seen their kid’s anxiety and depression go through the roof. It’s obvious how much this has affected them.”

Camp Accelerate summer learning at Leonville Elementary in St. Landry Parish SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY NETWORK

Camp Accelerate summer learning at Leonville Elementary in St. Landry Parish SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY NETWORK

Her children returned to school this monthin Jefferson Parish, along with thousands of other young students across Louisiana. The start of this school year coincides with a steady increase in COVID-19 cases linked to the delta variant, which has affected greater numbers of young people and children.

It’s a source of concern for many parents like Luke, even as they hold out hope that this year will bear some semblance of normalcy for their children.

“It’s just an extra level of anxiety to contend with while at the same time I’m hoping they stay healthy and are able to get back to their routines,” she said.

The pandemic has created a significant disruption in the lives of school-age children and teenagers, who have had to adjust to interrupted routines, a loss of community, and greater social isolation. Public health measures have intermittently forced the closure of schools, summer camps, and other settings that help children with socialization and learning. Children and teenagers have also had to cope with the loss of loved ones and the financial struggles that have affected hundreds of families during the pandemic. As a new year begins, school districts across the state are looking at ways to address the emotional and social needs of their students that have been amplified by the pandemic, while at the same time trying to manage limited resources and professionals able to handle those needs.

 

 

‘Considerable’ federal spending on mental health support for children

Louisiana schools were recently notified they would be receiving federal aid through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), which in part has to be used to provide mental health services and address learning loss. The nearly $4 billion fund will be disbursed in segments over the next three years to school districts.

With these funds, several districts across the state are better able to manage their counseling shortages and hire mental health professionals. Some districts are adding to their rosters of in-house social workers and licensed counselors with the help of federal COVID relief funds. St. Landry Parish has implemented a Well-Being Leadership Team at each campus, which is made up of at least one teacher, counselor, and administrator from each school.

The Lafayette Parish School System in southwest Louisiana is using more than a quarter of a million dollars toward six full-time school counselors to provide individual and group therapy, agency referrals, mental health screening and intervention support for LPSS students as recommended by school staff, according to district documents.

Ouachita Parish Schools in Northeast Louisiana will have three full-time mental health experts and 12-15 part-time mental health staff, as announced by the district’s superintendent, Don Coker.

Principal Nicole Morrison at the Camp Accelerate summer learning program SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY NETWORK

Principal Nicole Morrison at the Camp Accelerate summer learning program SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY NETWORK

Schools also are adjusting curriculum and providing social-emotional training for staff to be able to reach out to all children and expand the reach of the traditional mental health support already on school campuses.

At Leonville Elementary, each school day last year began with a “morning meeting” to check on students.

“We check in with them and see if they’re not in an OK space,” Principal Nicole Morrison said. “We always had some social and emotional supports on campus, but what the pandemic did was exacerbate it. Now everyone is affected.”

And when families need support beyond school, districts are partnering with outside agencies to provide services. Healing House in Lafayette has been providing grief support groups in local schools. as well as tragedy response teams and coping kits.

They can meet at schools, usually during lunch breaks, or for longer sessions at “the house,” which includes four rooms designed to help kids open up and work through their grief.

“We knew there were a number of kids whose families couldn’t physically get them to Healing House,” Program Director Brad Gros said. “We wanted to make sure we were serving as many kids as possible. School counselors have so much on their plate; they are happy to have an added resource come in and help make sure students’ needs are met.”

State officials expect to see similar moves across more districts, as billions in ESSER dollars filter down to school systems over the next few years.

“The well-being of kids really matters to us, and we are trying to provide resources for mental health supports,” Louisiana Superintendent Cade Brumley said. “I do expect quite considerable (federal) spending in those areas considering the trauma of COVID-19.”

 

 

 

 

‘Teenagers are internalizing problems’

Studies show that public health mandates, such as distance learning, school closures and altered schedules, have resulted in a higher incidence of anxiety and depression among older children and teenagers.

School started Aug. 9 in Plaquemines Parish, where staff and students are required to mask on school buses and on campus.

For now, school will be entirely in person. To reduce the spread of COVID, the district offered both virtual and in-person school options last year.

Brad Gros is the program director at Healing House, a grief support center for children in Lafayette.

Brad Gros is the program director at Healing House, a grief support Center for children in Lafayette. ANDRE BROUSSARD/DAILY ADVERISTER

Such changes in school schedules led to different reactions in different developmental age groups, according to Brandon Wilks, a nationally certified school psychologist who works with the Plaquemines Parish School District and the president of the Louisiana School Psychological Association.

Middle and high school students who were accustomed to using computers were able to bounce back more easily academically, while younger children struggled with basic fundamentals, especially during virtual classes, he said.

“We had a lot more externalizing behavior among younger kids than expected. Kids becoming more aggressive with each other and having trouble verbalizing what was going on with them,” said Wilks. “The pandemic took away opportunities to practice socialization.”

Among older students, he has seen the opposite.

“Teenagers are internalizing problems, resulting in more anxiety and depression,” he said.

It’s a troubling pattern that has been reported across the country. A national poll conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan reported that 46% of parents said their teenagers were showing signs of new or worsening mental health conditions since March 2020. The report is based on responses from 977 parents of teenagers ages 13-18.

Among younger children, experts are concerned about the loss of socialization and communication skills, which can result in outbursts, aggression, and other signs of pent-up stress.

Through the CARES Act, the district was able to access funding to help students and families dealing with food insecurity by providing free meals. The district also put in place screening methods to identify students who may be struggling at school or with circumstances at home.

“We have become more acutely aware of the financial situation and trauma history our kids are dealing with,” said Wilks.

 

 

Students’ social interactions have been limited

Simone McCrocklin, an art teacher with the Talented Visual Arts Program in the Lafayette Parish School System, worries about how the over-exposure to technology has affected her students and her 11-year-old daughter Sophia over the last 16 months.

Simone McCrocklin meets 11 year old Sophia at bus stop SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY NETWORK

Simone McCrocklin meets 11 year old Sophia at bus stop SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY NETWORK 

While Sophia was able to go to school in person most of last year, her summer camp was canceled for the second year in a row, limiting her ability to socialize with other kids during the summer months.

“She has regressed when it comes to social interactions with other people and kids. It has been a struggle to get her off technology to come to talk to us or run errands,” said McCrocklin.

Among her high school students, she has seen similar troublesome signs. A lack of interest in engaging in face-to-face conversations and students relying more on friends they meet online.

“Everyone has become so dependent on technology and it really has been exacerbated by the pandemic. You couldn’t go anywhere and screens were the only way to communicate.”

Kelly Harper, a social worker for West Carroll Parish, said many students lost their only chance for positive interaction when they couldn’t come to school due to COVID-19. At home, some students struggled with troubled families or saw no family at all.

“Teacher-student relationships are very important because that teacher might be the only person that that child has a positive interaction with on a daily basis,” Harper said. “When the students got sent home and they were either home doing virtual school or no school at all, a lot of our students were no longer having that positive interaction with our teachers or with the school administration.”

Deborah Evans, curriculum coordinator and master teacher for West Carroll Parish, said she has watched several children experience the death of close family members, causing additional strain upon pandemic woes.

Evans knew one family who lost their grandfather. He would pick up and drop off his grandson who was in the third grade and granddaughter who was in second grade every day. He’d bring them food from McDonald’s, and check to make sure his grandson never forgot his math book. On occasion, he would bring fishing poles and take them to the water.

Evans said the grandson was most affected, because not only did he lose a grandparent, but a male figure in his life.

“Elementary children, they don’t know how to respond. They don’t know how to grieve,” Evans said. “Those are learned behaviors.”

 

 

The school counseling shortage isn’t new

School districts have struggled for years to staff their schools with mental health professionals prior to the pandemic.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services projected significant shortages for behavioral health practitioners for children and adolescents, especially in schools, according to Louisiana State University.

Simone McCrocklin with 11 year old Sophia. SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY NETWORK

Simone McCrocklin with 11 year old Sophia. SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY NETWORK

There were 561 social workers employed by local education agencies across the state of Louisiana, amounting to about half (52.2%) of the mental health workforce in schools during the 2018-2019 school year, according to the Louisiana Department of Education.

With 716,293 students enrolled in Louisiana public schools at the time, this indicated a 1,277:1 student-to-social worker ratio — more than five times the 250:1 ratio recommended by the National Association of Social Workers, according to LSU.

In West Carroll Parish, there are only four counselors able to help the district’s more than 2,000 students and five schools. The district has had a shortage of these professionals for the last five to seven years, according to Harper.

Because the parish is small and rural staff members are asked to wear multiple hats. Harper provides counseling services as a social worker and conducts special education assessments of pre-schoolers in between traveling to different campuses.

“We all have tons of job duties,” Harper said. “So our time to actually provide counseling, direct counseling services to students is limited because of our staffing shortage.”

Nearby district Ouachita Parish Schools has experienced similar issues. Aswell Werner, director of middle schools and Title II for the district, said they can hire only so many counselors. After three to four counselors retired this year due to COVID-19 concerns, the district had trouble finding replacements. Werner said many licensed practitioners, who usually provide private counseling, are not always eligible for their school positions because they require employees to be certified to work in a school setting.

Despite these counselor shortages, the demand is there. The counselors who are around to help are doing what they can. In West Carroll, the district plans to put together social, emotional learning teams of up to six staff members to address mental and behavioral needs in students.

“An actual teacher at the school or the assistant principal or the cafeteria worker or the janitor at each school — they tend to know their students better than anyone else,” Harper said. “I feel like it’ll be a more personalized assessment and interventions that can be provided by the staff members who know the students and other families a little bit better than what we did at the district level.”

These teams will have monthly meetings, and they will discuss students who are considered at risk by assessing grades and behavioral concerns. Parents will also be invited to partake in the process.

 

 

‘It’s scary being a teacher’

As schools work to address the needs of their students they will also be working to address the mental health needs of staff who have had to work under extraordinary circumstances and pressure for close to two years, including a partnership between the Louisiana Department of Education and Ochsner Health System to provide free teletherapy to school employees.

“It’s scary being a teacher or coming back to the uncertainty of everything, and we have to try to make sure that the mental health of our staff is supported as well,” said Harper.

In addition to teachers feeling the stress and grief of the pandemic, teachers are under pressure to make sure their students perform well in school. When looking at the most recent LEAP scores, student performance level decreased across all districts in all grade levels with the exception of two school districts. With the new school year, much of the conversation is centered around how schools are going to recoup lost learning and ensure students perform better on next year’s standardized tests.

“The concern that many people have had is that when kids come back (to school) they may be under stress to perform, teachers may be under stress to perform, it could create an emotional tinderbox that could be really problematic,” said David Osher, the vice president and institute fellow at the American Institutes for Research.

 

Contact the reporters: Maria Clark at mclark@gannett.com or on Twitter @MariaPClark1; Leigh Guidry at Lguidry@theadvertiser.com or @LeighGGuidry; and Sabrina LeBoeuf at sleboeuf@gannett.com or @_sabrinakaye.

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