In Tampa Bay area school districts, new mental health programs are launching to help students return to the classroom.
“We’re doing a whole lot of creative and innovative things this year to try to help support our students and families,” said Donna Sicilian, Executive Director of Student Services for Pinellas County Schools.
“We’re just very excited for the new year. We’re excited to have all of our staff back, all of our students,” said Elizabeth Tanner, Supervisor of Emotional Wellness for Hillsborough County Schools.
There’s an even bigger focus on mental health this year because leaders say many students may be struggling due to the pandemic.
“As we see our community and really the whole world struggling with this pandemic and the results of it, we are seeing that in schools, and we are trying to poise ourselves and continue to address the concerns that kids are bringing in,” said Sicilian.
“Many of our students have been e-learning for over 12 months and this will be their first opportunity to come back on campus and see their friends and teachers and get back into a routine. We know there’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment time that can be very new for our students that have been out of the building for several months,” said Tanner.
In Hillsborough County, leaders are partnering with several community agencies to provide extra mental health resources like making sure schools have counselors, psychologists, nurses, social workers, and therapists.
“We know there’s going to be some fears, perhaps anxiety. Knowing that the school is a resource and that teachers are on hand to support our students, to be patient, to offer grace, and make sure that they’re adjusting well is very important in our district,” said Tanner.
“If students need a more intensive level of support those folks are available on campus as well,” she added.
In Pinellas County, the district is also investing in mental health resources to help students adjust.
“I think we are seeing more people with challenges that we need to address and a higher acuity so individuals that already had mental health struggles, seeing it more intensely… I think the isolation, the fear, the anxiety, is a really big piece of that and I always say that schools are like a microcosm of society. So whatever is happening in our world and in our community we’re going to see it in schools,” said Sicilian.
Some of the new programs and expanded resources in Pinellas County Schools this year include more training for teachers and staff to help them identify students in need, and a mental health triage team comprised of psychologists, social workers, and counselors.
“Our focus is a to really identify students and families that have been impacted by the pandemic, by the isolation associated with the pandemic, and provide them a linkage to services both in the school and in the community,” said Donna Sicilian, Executive Director of Student Services for Pinellas County Schools.
Some students may need even more assistance. That’s why there’s a new program that will help students gradually increase skill and comfort level to help them return to school who were in the hospital homebound program for mental health services.
“So kids who have some severe anxiety, depression, phobia, school phobia, that have been at home and maybe it would be very traumatic and not healthy for them to jump into a giant high school,” said Sicilian.