If we revisit Harry Wong’s The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher, we know that we can’t access Bloom’s taxonomy until we address Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. During this time of considerable uncertainty, it is increasingly important to consider mental health and wellness as a need we must address before we can get to the higher-order thinking skills associated with great instruction and learning. To that end, our school system quickly made plans to take school counseling online during this challenging time.

Supporting Students During COVID-19

Our school district serves students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, and an extended closure brings challenges to our hearts and minds that are much greater than the typical responsibilities. As a district, we felt the need to address two immediate concerns outside of the instructional realm: feeding our students and providing school counseling services. To be honest, we have a wonderful community, so between our food service folks and our community, feeding our students was pretty easy.

When it comes to providing counseling, I have a quote on my desk that says, “Vision to see Obstacles as Opportunities.” We like to look at this unprecedented period of time as an opportunity to strengthen our connections with our students in new and different ways. Also, I think it’s valuable to keep in mind that our students are digital natives. We know that even though we like face-to-face meetings, many of our students appreciate the safety of communicating with a counselor or social worker from behind their device. It’s an opportunity to embrace something different, and my district is taking full advantage.

So how did @WorcesterSystem choose to address the gaps created by the physical and emotional distance between our staff, faculty, and students? We #FlippedTheSwitch, for all those TikTok lovers out there, and we made school counseling and mental health services virtual. We created a form where students or parents can log concerns and have a counselor call them back, and we created a dedicated phone line for students to call for immediate support. Our school counselors and social workers were wildly supportive of this initiative, and I will be forever grateful to them for stepping up and supporting our students. Also, while saying I am grateful, I was not surprised because they are awesome people!

Over the past two weeks, school counselors and social workers have been able to support students on a wide range of issues, from providing documents to seniors who are nervous about scholarship deadlines to offering behavioral strategies for autistic students who are struggling with the sudden loss of their normal routine. Lauren Williams, our district’s first coordinator of mental health, shared, “During this time, we know our students and families may be experiencing high levels of anxiety, and it’s essential to keep the lines of communication open. We want the school community to know that we are here to support their mental health and other needs, despite our physical buildings being closed.”

In addition to providing these services by an on-call staff person, we also provide daily mental health tips to our students and families via our social media handles on Twitter and Facebook (@WoCoSchoolMH). Through these posts we promote self-care, self-regulation, connection, and safety. The posts might include encouraging words and quotes, or they may include a link to a wellness activity or mindful moment. Throughout all of our posts, we remind our stakeholders to #BeWellWorcester.

School Isn’t Closed

During this extended break from our school buildings, remember school isn’t closed, the building is closed. #SchoolIsNotABuilding: Our school system is a tightly woven fabric that is inclusive of all the people we work alongside, and the young people we serve—and those relationships are neither severed nor closed! So back to the basics. Let’s first fill our students’ bellies with hot food and their hearts with comfort and security, for only then can we attend to “the important things,” instruction!

I have so many hugs, high fives, and fist bumps saved up during this extended closure! So, not if, but whenwe get back, my tank is full, and we will be so ready to welcome back our amazing students!

Annette Wallace is the Chief Operating & Academic Officer of Worcester County Public Schools. She is the former Principal of Pocomoke High School, a high-poverty school on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She believes that in order to change her community she must provide all students with access to an education beyond high school by breaking down any and all barriers that might get in the way of her students achieving their dreams. Since losing her father, she has become an advocate for suicide prevention. Annette is the 2017 Maryland Association of Secondary Schools Principal of the Year and the 2018 Maryland Society of Education Technology Outstanding Leader of the Year. Follow her on Twitter (@aewallace8).


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