An "ever-changing" challenge: The mental health hurdles that Colorado schools are facing

Posted at 10:22 AM, Mar 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-09 22:20:51-05

LOVELAND, Colo. — Lacee Smith can recount dozens of unique challenges of teaching and learning during a pandemic, but sometimes it's the little things that stand out the most.

Smith, a counselor at Winona Elementary School in Loveland, has noticed, more than once in the last year, that when a child forgets their mask in their parent's car or drops it in the snow, it's not just a small issue.

"Kids have that so ingrained in them, like 'I need to wear my mask all the time, all day,'" Smith said. "And if they forget it in the car or they drop it in the snow and get it muddy, it's like a traumatic experience for them to not have something covering their face. I've seen multiple kids really, really struggle with just that one thing, and it really hit me: This kid is feeling real anxiety over that because they forgot their mask in their mom's car."

The example Smith shared highlights, in one small way, the uniqueness of the last year in schools across Colorado. While many districts are returning to full-time in-person learning — and most elementary students have been in-person since winter break — that doesn't mean everything is "normal," or close to it.

COVID-19 protocols are in place to keep students, teachers and their families safe. That means, in many cases, that while students might be in a classroom, they're not interacting with as many students as they normally would or taking part in the same activities outside of day-to-day learning. And even where in-person learning is in place, quarantine protocols can still send teachers and classes home, depending on COVID-19 contact tracing.

The changing dynamics of the last year beg the question: What are students and teachers going through emotionally? What mental-health hurdles are they facing? And what do they want people to know about their experience?

In an effort to see this from the ground up, we talked with counselors and administrators at every level of the Thompson School District, who, like Smith, agreed to share their stories and what they've learned after a year of COVID-19 learning.

What's the biggest challenge you've noticed?

Keely Garren, social emotional learning (SEL) coordinator for the district: "The hardest thing is definitely the ever-changing dynamics of what school looks like, and then trying to meet the diverse needs of our community. We know that maybe some, some students and families have been thriving in remote learning, but we also know that some do better in person. And so just trying to support the balance in terms of mental health."

"One of my previous [jobs] was as a school counselor, and I really counted on that in-person interaction to be able to assess the student and kind of see what else is going on. Sometimes that even means their well-being for that day. Are they wearing the same clothes? Can I see any type of marks on their hands that maybe I would ask them about? And when we're in a remote setting, and we're trying to make those assessments without being in-person that can make it really difficult."

Valerie Lara-Black, principal at Mary Blair Elementary School: "We're finding that kids just need a safe place to be. And so providing those opportunities, whether it's I stop what I'm doing and reach out and have a conversation with the kiddo or he does, or any staff member. And that really comes with being able to build relationships, which is challenging right now. Because we can't engage the way we used to, before finding that kids just need that time. They need time to be with an adult or with a trusted person to talk through some of the challenges and the big emotions that they're dealing with."

Lacee Smith, counselor at Winona Elementary School: "We actually gave a survey to our kiddos. I think we had almost 90 responses. And one of the lowest scoring areas was, 'I know how to pull myself out of a bad mood,' or 'I can remain calm and collected, if other people or kids around me are are not calm.' And it was it was a low-scoring area for not just our school, but for the district."

"And so we're seeing like a lot of high stress. A lot of kids are really seeking out that adult connection. Because it's been so hard. Kids are feeling isolated and lonely, not just from their peers, but from like supportive adults in the school environment."

Shayna Seitchik, counselor at Lucille Erwin Middle School: "So much identity development occurs during the middle school years, worried about personal identity, and a lot of social identities, and so much of middle school is that social aspect of it. And a lot of that has either been taken away, or has changed to be very structured this year. And specific to middle school students, something that I'm interested in seeing is how, or what, changes to the identity development really happened because of this. And of course, you know, we might not know that for a while."

Garren: "One of our biggest things that we're really talking about right now, is that 'compassion fatigue,' and what that looks like to always kind of be 'on' and constantly empathizing for others. And what that does, that burnout level for educators and especially mental health staff. It's hard to be a caregiver or nurture or educator or mental health provider. We know that it takes a lot of energy to do that."

What are the biggest struggles with Zoom learning?

Garren: "I have two of my own children that are very social and don't mind being on camera. And I have two that that's a struggle And so I'm just trying to find the balance. I would definitely say teachers have done amazing with adapting to that setting and finding creative ways to engage students. But I definitely know — I have a high schooler, and oftentimes, when I check in on her, there's a requirement for them to be on camera but most of the class has their camera pointed up to the ceiling. And so, my heart goes out to those teachers trying to teach to the cameras that are faced up to the ceiling."

Bernadine Knittel, counselor at Thompson Valley High School: "Students not turning on their cameras. Students not responding to emails, forgetting their online appointments. It's getting better with the exception of the camera; students are starting to use their emails to communicate. Sometimes the connection is really bad so the student is freezing, or freezing on my end. During department meetings, we’ve captured some really awesome pictures of our frozen faces. You have to find those opportunities to laugh during a difficult time. I can only imagine the pictures students have captured, probably why they keep their cameras off."

Seitchik: "When we're remote, we are seeing inside of students' homes, if they are working from home or just whatever environment they're working in. And for some students, they're not comfortable with that. And they don't want the class, the teacher or other students to see in their personal space."

"So some students, definitely, I have spoken to about just feeling anxiety of not wanting to see their home, for whatever reason. Or just feeling uncomfortable being on camera, feeling uncomfortable talking in the meetings, and maybe prefer to type into the chat."

Has there been a moment that stood out to you? That showed the challenge of the last year?

Knittel: "I think the moment that stands out in my mind is the day I was in a department meeting (virtually) and one of my colleagues broke down. It was out of character for this person. This person was feeling pretty beat up from the negative correspondences she was receiving. If there is one virtue, we are missing in this world it is grace. People have no idea. We are doing the best we can do. With that said, we do have parents who reach out to us and thank us for all that we are doing to educate and work with their students. However, it is that negativity that lingers on and we have to work really hard to not take offense, step back, and understand everybody is struggling."

Smith: "It really hit me — the mask-wearing thing. This happened more than one time, but kids have it so ingrained in them, like 'I need to wear my mask like all the time, all day.' And if they forget it in the car or they drop it in the snow and get it muddy — it's like a traumatic experience for them to a not have something covering their face. And then to like have to ask for one and advocate for that."

"I've seen multiple kids really, really struggle with just that one thing, and it really hit me, oh my gosh, this is something that this kid is feeling real anxiety over because they forgot their mask in their mom's car.' So that, for me, was one thing I was like, 'Oh, wow.'"

What would you want the public to know about school during COVID-19?

Lara-Black: "I wish that we could bring people into our building to see the great things that are happening as well. This is the best place for kids to be. Teachers want their kids to be here in person — this is the most successful way to teach kids is to be able to be with them ... But also understanding that we we are people, and we have our own families. And we're trying to look out for the best interest of both our students and our families. And so, when we do have to go home and engage in remote learning and quarantine, it's not because we don't want to be here. It's not because we don't want kids in the classroom. It's because we want what's best for our entire community. And as a community, being able to support one another, whether it's in person or remote is really important."

Seitchik: "From the school perspective, we still deeply care about students, we're passionate about education, we are doing everything that we can to rewrite our jobs within the changing — constantly changing — parameters that we're told. And while carrying around the daily stress of living in a pandemic, for a year, doing what's best for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the loved ones of others that are entrusted to us every day ... And also everyone is a witness to our struggle. So while we're constantly rewriting our job and our profession, and trying to make these decisions about what works best, and how to do things that we think are in the best interest of students, in our communities, our staff and families, everybody is witnessing that.

"And families are doing the best they can, and students are doing the best they can. And as educators, we're doing the best we can. And it's it's a very hard situation to be in for everybody. But definitely the piece of just how much people are watching us do it is definitely interesting, that not every profession is going through. So that's a piece about education that I found interesting, because it's like everyone's watching us kind of struggle to figure out how to best meet the needs and do what we think is best. And because everybody is witnessing that, everyone has their opinion on on how we're doing."