Social and Emotional Wellness amid Covid-19 for Students and Faculty

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The counseling team in the Bedford Public Schools was managing a mental health crisis — before the arrival of the pandemic almost 11 months ago.

Now, according to the schools’ director of counseling, “issues are amplified. People’s resiliency in the face of all of these challenges is down. Things are more challenging right now and our resources are strained.”

Alicia Linsey shared details at the School Committee meeting last week. Her presentation was entitled “Social and Emotional Wellness amid Covid-19 for Students and Faculty.”

“Academic achievement and social-emotional wellness are hand-in-hand,” Linsey said. The counselors report that “some students are doing really well. Some have developed coping skills. We have students who have never seen struggle and now they are struggling. We have students happy to connect two days a week. We have kids toggling between two academic environments and that is working well for them. But we worry about social isolation.”

Turning to teachers, Linsey declared that “the work that they are doing is truly nothing short of amazing. They are showing up every day for our kids.” They are being the “invisible organization and planning that goes into what happens in classrooms every day. They say everything is taking longer this year. “

“The pandemic has suspended normal life, which can create some emotional turmoil,” Lindey told the committee. “All of our families are navigating risks, making decisions about children’s academics. Some of the decisions have competing priorities. The nuances are different for every family.”

Technically, “The brain is under stress, and the more stress we feel, the more we move to basic survival,” she continued. “This is something all of us are experiencing.” When the mind is agitated and anxious, that impacts effective thinking. “Everything feels more urgent. There are fewer moments in our day for the brain to take a rest.”

For students, Linsey said, this experience is “truly a traumatic event.” The goal is “to shift to a place where we can be calm and can think more clearly. We really try to work from this space of calmness. That’s where we really can problem-solve.”

“Part of a student’s success is related to a network of support – parents, teachers, peers, administrators, counselors,” Linsey observed. “If everyone in that network of support is under stress, the individual is at greater risk. There’s a compounding impact to that. You have a strain on the system.”

Are there ways to mitigate the strain? It can be complicated. Linsey presented an example: waiving the Scholastic Aptitude Test for seniors. “But they have been taught that taking the SATs is always part of the process, so even when we remove that it’s disorienting to students because it is not typical. So even when we are working hard it is still outside the norm.”

The counselors, Linsey said, are “teaching our children how to be aware of themselves, or others, and how their behavior impacts others.” The approach is rooted in “five core competencies of social-emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness of others, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.”

She meets not only with her counselors but also with a mental health team that includes counselors, clinicians, adjustment counselors, and nurses. Also participating are Heidi Porter, the town’s director of health and human services, and the department’s social worker, Chris Bang. The unit was formed in 2019 and “has been a really wonderful resource through this year.”

“One of the most important developmental tasks for teens is to detach from their parents,” Linsey observed. “We are in a time that is supposed to be punctuated by detaching and we have a full generation of teens who are home with their parents. I am really curious how this is going to impact them long term.”

Linsey said the counselors seek to ensure “physical and emotional safety, a sense of belonging,” to foster performance at the highest level. And this also pertains to adults, she emphasized. Counselors connect with staff through drop-in sessions, frequent check-ins, clinical consultations, workshops, and presentations. There is “safe space for faculty to come and talk about experiences. Folks feel they are not in this alone.”

There are weekly clinical consultations available for teachers, she said, adding that there are also community institutions and mental health providers with which her staff has “really strong relationships.”

Asked by committee member JoAnn Santiago about absences from school, Linsey replied that there is a small increase but no evidence of dropouts. Santiago’s colleague Sarah Scoville expressed concern about students new to struggling. “We don’t have informal moments, those two minutes before class., where you can make those little connections.” Linsey agreed, emphasizing the special importance of the BHS in-person advisory program.

Committee Chair Dan Brosgol asked Linsey if students are fearful of Covid or “overwhelmed by everything?” That depends on their experience, she replied. “Kids who have seen the physical impact of Covid are probably more fearful.”

“I’m glad to see there’s outreach—at least the conversations are going on,” said committee member Ann Guay. “There is going to be a lot of work to do when we get back.”

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763


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