For some children, school is more than just a place to learn; it can be a place to share burdens with professionals who can help them.
But what happens when those resources become unavailable, such as when schools are closed?
Savannah Campbell, guidance counselor at Ware Shoals High School, said that depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Social isolation has caused stress and anxiety to go through the roof,” Campbell said. “We’re seeing more depression, routines and sleep patterns have been affected.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said emergency department visits for mental health concerns in children increased in April and stayed elevated through October. It increased 24% for children ages 5-11 and 24% for children ages 12-17, according to the CDC.
Kathryn Butler, director of student support services in Greenwood County School District 50, said students are also afraid they or a relative will get sick.
The biggest issue is that since people have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, Butler has seen a rise in displaced children.
“They couch surf or will stay in a car,” Butler said.
Elizabeth Justesen, guidance counselor at Woodfields Elementary School, said some of the students’ anxiety comes from wondering if they will get sick.
“It’s something they are anxious about,” Justesen said.
Referrals for mental health services have gone up because students can’t access the resources provided by schools if the schools are closed, Campbell said.
“It’s hard because sometimes you just can’t reach families, and you’re not seeing them at school as often,” Campbell said. “It’s really hard to provide them the level of care that they need.”
The counselors in Ware Shoals find themselves making lists of students they haven’t heard from in a while. If all methods of contact go unanswered, someone will go to the child’s house to make sure they are okay.
“We try to make ourselves as available as possible,” Campbell said. “It’s just difficult.”
Home visits aren’t uncommon during these uncertain times. Student support facilitators are there to help check up on students who haven’t been present or whose grades are suffering.
“If a student misses two consecutive days we start making phone calls,” Connie Dalton, student support facilitator at Northside Middle school, said.
Dalton’s job is to make sure there is no interruption in the child’s education. This means doing things such as fixing technology issues, providing mental health resources, facilitating meal delivery on the weekends, amongst other things.
District 50 helps students reach the ultimate goal of graduation. “We even pay for college applications,” Butler said.
They pay for anything a student might need to succeed, they are able to do this because of the McKinney-Vento grant. A McKinney-Vento grant is geared to help students who experience poverty or homelessness succeed.
School counselors spoke of how the school works together to identify and help children succeed.
“Teachers are our first point of contact,” Justesen said. “If they notice something isn’t right with a child they will let us know, then we’ll intervene.”
School counselors have come up with different and creative ways to soothe children’s worries. “I encourage them to talk about their feelings, and find a release,” Justesen said.
Donna Brown, guidance counselor at Ninety Six Elementary School, taught her students different ways to handle their stress. Using a prop — a water bottle filled with glitter — as a metaphor for anxiety.
“You need to settle like the glitter settles,” Brown said to her students.
Brown also tells the students that moments in life can be a lollipop or a lemon. She asks her students to tell her about lollipop moments, the good ones, and lemon moments, the not so great ones, from their day.
Natalie Chitwood, a fifth-grader at Ninety Six Elementary school, is glad to be back in school some days.
“It’s (virtual learning) a lot of self-responsibility,” Chitwood said. “I missed some assignments, which was stressful.”
Justesen makes it clear that just because her students aren’t in school the school counselors are there for them.
“There’s no magic wand,” Justesen said “We’re doing everything we can to help.”