March 2020 redefined the term “March Madness,” as schools across our nation began to shutter. Humanity was under attack by a global health crisis. We sheltered in place and distanced ourselves from friends and family. The National Guard was deployed, and governments enacted doctrines never before seen. We found ourselves staring face to face with an invisible predator, one that has stripped us of our cultural and societal norms. This silent contagion, COVID-19, and its effects have weighed heavily on the minds of our school-aged children.

In the months since, children and adolescents have been besieged with images of people in masks, daily briefings of infection rates, and the constant uptick of the death toll. They have been reminded to wash hands correctly, keep distance, and stay home whenever possible. In the face of such despondency, the most mentally healthy and stable school-aged children have begun to describe feelings of anxiety, fear, depression, and overwhelming uncertainty.

Support teams were already working with students who have experienced trauma due to difficult home situations and mental instability. Now, they’re addressing students’ needs as a result of statewide shutdowns. Schools across the nation are required to include mental health support and social-emotional learning in their distance learning plans, but is that enough to help students through this time? Unfortunately, the true impact of school closures and effectiveness of the supports provided through nonconventional means will not be fully realized until school buildings reopen—even then, it might be months or years for those mental effects to be known.

Outlining the Child Study Team Process

At West Islip High School (WIHS) in West Islip, NY, the child study team (CST) is responsible for assessment and student crisis management. The CST is composed of the WIHS building-level administration, director of counseling, school counselors, psychologists, social worker, nurse, and substance abuse counselor. This team meets weekly to collaboratively identify and discuss the academic, behavioral, and emotional challenges and needs of struggling students or those who are beginning to display at-risk behaviors. For students identified as at-risk, the CST designs individualized plans and interventions, which may include academic support, counseling (school-based or community-based), family meetings, and medical referrals or community resources.

For students in crisis or those continuing to struggle with a variety of issues, after Tier 1 (universal prevention) and Tier 2 (targeted prevention and screening) interventions have been applied, the CST employs a multidisciplinary approach to screen for and coordinate treatment plans for students who have experienced trauma, medical issues, emotional disturbances, psychiatric disorders, or mental instability. As a Tier 3 intervention, the CST serves as the critical link to outside agencies and individualized services.

Scheduling Home Visits

Home visits are an effective strategy that builds relationships, skills, and engagement of families. School counseling staff, social workers, psychologists, and school administrators schedule nonpunitive visits (in keeping with recommended social distancing guidance) to students’ homes to strengthen the connection with identified students and their families. This collaborative approach allows high school staff to gain a better understanding of nonschool influences, build cultural competency, and provide an important level of support to struggling students and their families. When needed, the team coordinates an emergency room visit or arranges for crisis psychiatric services. Fostering the home-school relationship creates a mutually supportive and accountable line of communication to discuss assessment—and concerns.

Facilitating a Reentry Meeting and Assessment

When a student experiences a crisis resulting in school absence, the goal is to provide the most appropriate, safe, and supportive conditions to transition the student back into the school environment. The reentry meeting is an opportunity to discuss with the family how the crisis has affected the student’s learning environment, as well as provide resources in both the school and community to ensure a successful return to school.

Once the school is made aware that a student received a physical, psychological, mental, and substance-abuse health assessment, the CST members follow up with parents or guardians and students to ensure a supportive transition. Families sign a consent for communication to take place with outside medical and psychological resources. At the reentry meeting, school staff discuss with family and medical professionals the results of assessments, tests, and interviews. They also review recommended interventions such as a return date to school and accommodations for return, such as shortened days, preferred seating, and a quiet space for respite. Finally, they discuss a discharge and treatment plan. The school staff provides the family with a list of outside resources and support.

We communicate with appropriate faculty to ensure that necessary information about the student is shared to facilitate student success. The CST continues to monitor the student’s academic and social-emotional functioning, provide regular and as-needed counseling access for students, and conduct communication with families. The assessment and monitoring process is diagnostic, identifying students of concern, assessing their risk for engaging in violence or other harmful activities, and identifying intervention strategies.

Support Through Distance Learning

With statewide school closures comes the question of the best way to provide related services to students with documents and school-based counseling to those who require it. Like teaching, providing services through virtual means presents challenges. Since school buildings closed in March 2020, there has been an increase in the reported numbers of students not engaging in distance learning activities or not attending live instructional sessions, as well as students struggling to cope with the increasing pressures of quarantine and fears of COVID-19.

In the initial weeks of closure, our teachers reached out to students and families, as they are always the first line of defense when reaching out to students. After a few attempts without success, the student’s name is referred to their counselor. School counselors reach out to all teachers and related service providers before outreach is made. After gathering information, the school counselor attempts to contact the student and the family and determine whether further intervention is necessary. If outside support is necessary or a student is in crisis, we make referrals for outside providers or mobile crisis units to assist the families. In cases where students present a pattern of disengaging with distance learning, an administrator is contacted, and we provide the family with a case manager to check in and offer support.

School-based support staff members have also moved to using videoconferencing to provide counseling sessions for students. While they’re not as effective as in-person counseling, video sessions provide support staff with more information—body language is much easier to see and interpret over a screen than by phone call. Psychologists and social workers can provide individual sessions or group counseling as necessary.

As schools face potential recurring closures and openings due to the pandemic, it is worth exploring how distance learning can be used to work with students who cannot be part of a school environment due to medical or emotional issues. When students are absent for an extended time, getting them back to the building becomes more difficult. They are anxious about what they have missed and reacclimating to the structure of a school day. By offering distance learning and virtual meetings with classroom teachers, students can be empowered to partake in classroom activities.

The collaborative, multidisciplinary approach set up at WIHS has created what the Council for Exceptional Children calls “a school-based service for purposes of screening, providing direct services, engaging and supporting families, [and] serving as a point of contact for community-based organizations.” In their article “Social and Emotional Learning, Positive Climate, and Mental Health Supports,” they report, “The adoption of trauma-informed approaches in schools has varied by the needs of school communities, available resources, and schools’ capacity to implement change. As a result, some have prioritized adopting targeted trauma prevention programs, others have taken a whole-school approach, and others have initiated work in schools through the creation of trauma-in-formed school crisis teams and disaster response.” Our child study team has been critical in providing a comprehensive approach to prevention and treatment vital to the well-being of our students while ensuring the safety of our school community.

Anthony Bridgeman, EdD, is the principal at West Islip High School in West Islip, NY. He is also an adjunct professor at the College of St. Rose’s Center for Integrated Teacher Education. Craig Gielarowski is the assistant principal at West Islip High School. Paulina Zarokostas serves as a school counselor and alternative school coordinator at West Islip High School. Danielle Mammolito is an assistant principal at West Islip High School and an adjunct professor for Molloy College in Rockville Centre, NY.