REED GATTY — While the days of makeshift and virtual classrooms may be a thing of the past, their impact on students’ mental health is profound, and educators have spent the last year trying to repair the damage done.
Children spend most of their learning time in the classroom, attending school-related activities and interacting with their peers. Those points of consistency and stability have been chipped away as a result of the pandemic, but through relationship building, social emotional learning and outside mental health help, school staff are doing what they can to help students thrive.
At this time last year, Reed City Public Schools Superintendent Michael Sweet was just beginning to deal with the mental and emotional toll the pandemic had on his students while trying to maintain the physical health and well-being of the school community.
It was clear to Sweet from the beginning that the quarantine would not be easy for the students of Reed City.
In early 2022, it became a district priority to raise awareness of the emotional strain students face and equip them with the tools necessary for recovery.
“I think for Reed City, that’s what we’ve tried to do throughout the year,” Sweet said. “It’s about trying to be aware and become more aware of where the struggles are so we can provide the support that we have available.”
For Reed City students, Sweet believes much of the mental and emotional struggle caused by COVID-19 stems from a lack of community. The school environment becomes a community for the students enrolled there, and the continued exclusion they felt due to the pandemic contributed to feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression.
Sweet said he and his staff are implementing social emotional learning systems in the district to try to educate students about empathy, self-awareness and acceptance of others’ differences.
As part of the SEL curriculum that the Reed City district chose, Sweet said there is an opportunity to also address suicide prevention and train staff to identify the warning signs of a suicidal child. His hope is that the use of SEL will give staff the ability to help students with their unique mental health needs.
“Mental health is such a big thing to get your heads and arms around because it affects people in different ways,” he said. “So how do we continue to promote awareness of how it’s okay to have struggles, it’s okay to let people know that you have struggles, because that way we can help each other.”
Paraprofessional Rich Spicer for the Career Technical Center of Wexford-Missaukee said SEL has become an important part of the conversation when it comes to dealing with mental and emotional stress in students.
Spicer teaches digital media production at CTC, and before the 2021-2022 school year ended, his students produced a local television talk show called “Last Minutes” where they discussed the struggles they still face after the pandemic. After hearing what his students had to say, Spicer knew school districts weren’t out of the woods yet when it came to getting kids back on track emotionally and academically.
“I’m spending more time talking to the kids about how they are this year than ever before,” he said. “And that’s okay, because … we all think that way at CTC, that if we can’t reach them emotionally, we can’t teach them.”
Spicer decided this year to let students know he was there for them, a tactic that worked well for Reed City Public Schools staff, according to Sweet. When Spicer interacts with students in class, he said he’s not just educating them, he’s investing in them and aims to make each individual feel supported.
In terms of academics, Spicer said students are motivated to learn, now more than ever, but that feeling emotionally is sure to lead to long-term academic success.
While academics continue to improve in Cadillac County Public Schools, school counselor Jessica Brown said students have suffered emotionally this year and it’s harder than the community can see. There’s only so much a counselor can do for a student to improve their mental health before a professional needs to be involved, but the lack of local providers makes that difficult.
“Obviously, we love them, we foster resilience, I’ll give counseling, but that’s not really what the school is for; it’s to learn,” she said. “So we’re trying to address all of those needs, but I think a lot of times, I definitely need to go for more mental health care, and there just aren’t enough doctors for the need.”
Many of Brown’s struggling students have always struggled with mental illness, but the pandemic has exacerbated issues they’ve dealt with before, in addition to taking away their only safe haven — going to school. Whether it’s parents struggling with addiction, financial problems or abuse, Brown said there are children who need their school community to survive.
Brown isn’t sure how the mental health crisis among college students can be solved, and she said it’s far from over. But like other local schools, CAPS has tried to do some good by using the SEL curriculum, which it will continue to expand in the future.
Like Brown, Spicer doesn’t know if there’s a solution in sight for students struggling with the effects of three years of total isolation. The best he and other educators can do is persevere in their support and their efforts to connect children with outside mental health resources.
Sweet said Reed City Public Schools will continue to use SEL as a tool to improve student mental health. And he believes there’s a long road ahead, even longer than the one they just went through, but as long as they stay awake and let the kids know there’s someone there to listen, there can be improvement.