More than a year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns about the psychological effects of the pandemic on children and adolescents continue to swirl as several different entities strive to understand the impact on children's mental well-being and how best to help them.
In the fall of 2020, the Alabama State Department of Education and Alabama State Legislature allocated $4.5 million in the form of grants for school districts to hire mental health service coordinators. On Oct. 1, 2020, the funds were released to 102 school system throughout the state.
Elmore County Public Schools was one of those districts and school counselor Jessica Shields transferred to the position of mental health services coordinator.
With May 2-8 being designated as Children's Mental Health Awareness Week, Shields said it's a good time to shine a light on the struggles many children are facing.
In her role, she is responsible for establishing mental health crisis protocols, providing intervention services and acting as a liaison among parents, students, the school district and outside mental health resources.
"I've seen a great deal of anxiety and depression," Shields said. "I've also seen a lack of motivation and just really high frustration levels with all of the changes that have happened. Our brains have been forced to create brand new patterns because of COVID and that alone brings frustration for students and also teachers and everyone across the board."
Shields said the overall level of connectedness among teacher and students and students with one another has declined.
"When teachers and students are in close proximity, there's a certain energy shared," she said. "There's a sense of family, a sense of belonging a sense of warmth and comfort that COVID sort took away because we're all having to be so hyper vigilant. It's robbed us of the freedom to freely socialize. We're having to remind ourselves not to get too close and to maintain a 6-foot distance. We're resisting the natural urge for closeness and bonding that arises when you work and learn together."
Shields said teachers having to juggle in-person students as well as those who attend school virtually makes it even harder for them to develop relationships with their students.
"Learning is a social event," Shields said. "The majority of kids need that in-person learning experience to some extent."
Shields said COVID has really brought to the forefront the need to address the mental health of students in addition to their academic readiness. Just as there are multifaceted approaches to help children who are falling behind academically, Shields said there needs to be systems in place to address the mental and emotional needs of students.
"Being ready to learn is about more than having paper and pencil in your backpack," she said. "We have to reach our children first. If we can't reach them, we can never teach them."
As a requirement for the grant, Shields is working in conjunction with school counselors, teachers and administrators to draft a multi-tiered plan to address and promote student mental-wellness. The draft will be submitted and approved by the ALSDE.
During the April 27, Elmore County Commission meeting, Shields was present as the Commission signed a proclamation declaring May 1-7 as Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. There was also a designated day districtwide for students, teachers and administrators to wear green - the color for children's mental health awareness.
This school year, the district also started using an app called Rhithm to assess how students are feeling each day. Each day students have the option to select from an array of emojis to tell how they're feeling that day or at any given moment. Based on how they student is feeling, the app will give them a three to five minute exercise to do or video to watch to help them right then and there.
"The app is already imbedded on all of their school devices and we can see if there's a specific community that seems to be more affected than others," Shields said. "It's not just for students, it's for teachers and administrators as well. Each person can check in as much as they want to throughout the day. We've also purchased the app for next year as we're figuring out how it best fits into our framework."
Shields said it will take some time to fully develop and implement a mental-wellness plan for the district, but it's a challenge that the district is ready to tackle.