Body image issues, academic pressures, social anxieties — students continue to face a mountain of stress as they return to their school communities, and San Mateo County District staff are looking for ways to be helpful.
The concerns are much the same among education professionals. Students can’t tell if their focus is being diverted and although distractions related to mental health issues have been around for decades, many officials worry that a range of issues are being amplified by cellphones and other electronic devices.
“In some ways, our children have the ability to connect with more people than ever before, but, at the same time, face-to-face interactions may be weaker than in the past. Even though they’re online, they can still being very lonely. It’s a double-edged sword,” said John Baker, chairman of the South San Francisco Unified School District Board of Trustees.
On the one hand, electronics have been an invaluable tool for the education system, allowing teachers and students to continue to connect virtually during the pandemic and, in some cases, can still be useful in classrooms today. today, Craig Childress, science teacher and president of the San Mateo Union High School District Teachers Association, said.
On the other hand, they can foster a space where online bullying and body image issues can escalate by bombarding children with overwhelming messages about their appearance while opening them up to criticism of the way they look. are currently showing up, Baker said.
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The San Mateo-Foster City School District took a new approach to addressing that issue this year by taking a note from San Mateo High School and going phone-free on its middle school campuses this school year, a move San Mateo High School made. in 2019. At the start of the school day, students must put their cell phones in an electronically locked pouch by the Yondr company, which prevents children from accessing their phones unless they are in a designated area .
Issues like bullying, developing a poor self-image and social isolation aren’t necessarily the product of phone and social media use, but Superintendent Diego Ochoa said divisions have exacerbated the areas of concern he says are most seen on college campuses. The goal, he said, is for middle schoolers to spend less time behind their screens and more time interacting with each other and their teachers.
“We have taken stock and implemented the program in all of our colleges here and our expectation, based on the level of anxiety, stress and bullying related to children using mobile phones, is to see a huge decrease in student-reported incidents of bullying and absences related to bullying on online social media,” Ochoa said. “Our approach was to use this resource to solve something that we knew was a problem. These phones have a very negative effect on campus culture because they lead to so much bullying and gossip. »
Childress said his members who teach at San Mateo High School have praised the program. The campus courtyard has become noisy again, he said, relaying what he described as a “really powerful” change.
Many districts are also focusing on more traditional approaches and looking to strengthen their mental health staff and services. The South San Francisco Unified School District just renewed a contract with YMCA Youth Services Offices, a community mental health provider and district partner.
More than 500 students accessed the services provided last year, Baker said, but the number of students receiving support in more relaxed settings from staff is likely higher, he said.
Students appear to be more open to accessing support services than in the past, Baker said, while acknowledging the district could do more to let students know about available programs.
“We’ve seen so many needs – depression, anxiety, trauma within families – that are being talked about now but never were before. … A silver lining is people are more willing to talk about what’s making them sick and that’s the first step to getting treatment,” Baker said. “But there is a lack of awareness about what is accessible to them. We have done a good job, but we need to do better. …Sometimes we have to let the children know the water is there so they can drink it.
San Mateo Union High School District leaders have long invested in wellness services on its campuses, both Childress and Superintendent Randall Booker pointed out. The issue is a “huge belief” for Booker, he said, stressing the importance of being proactive when it comes to supporting students and their mental health so they can perform at their best. themselves inside and outside the classroom.
“It’s really important that we continue to do our best to make school as normal as possible and familiar as possible while recognizing that students need more,” Booker said. “Students can’t learn if they don’t feel included or if they don’t feel like they belong or if they don’t feel like people understand them.”
As students return to campus, Childress said the atmosphere is generally positive, although many are still making adjustments.
“The first part of the year is always a mix of anxiety and excitement for both students and teachers alike with the transition to summer and getting back to the rhythm of things,” Childress said. “But for the most part the kids are thrilled to be back.”
The key to the district’s safety net is making sure there are enough staff on campus who can keep tabs on students, Booker said. One-on-one interactions between teachers and students can sometimes be difficult to achieve, but Booker said he is proud of the district’s staffing levels and intends to continue devoting resources to supporting student mental health.
But attracting staff to complement a mental health team can be a difficult task, Baker said. The district was looking for nine mental health professionals to add to its team but, at the start of the new school year, had only hired two.
Burlingame School District Superintendent Chris Mount-Benites said past iterations of administrative teams and school boards have strengthened the district’s mental health services, but he acknowledged that many districts are likely struggling to recruit. right now, because the focus is more on building up support staff.
Dan Deguara, superintendent of the Belmont-Redwood Shores School District, said he was also fortunate that former leaders focused on mental health as a priority. The accent is part of what drew Deguara to the district three years ago, he said, and it’s one he intends to continue.
Deguara and Mount-Benites acknowledged that being away from in-person learning exacerbated the problems. What happens in the virtual world often spills over to the world of school campuses, underscoring their appreciation for having mental health services in place long before COVID-19 hit the region.
“I am again really lucky that we have invested in these resources and have these teams that have been operational since before the pandemic and they have only become more robust since the pandemic,” Deguara said.
More details on how the pandemic has affected students’ mental health and performance are still being analyzed, but Mount-Benites said he expects data to show students are less well off despite concerted efforts by members of the profession to make the transition to remote learning and back as seamless as possible.
“There’s a lot of depression, bullying, cyberbullying and it’s hard for parents to deal with and it obviously merges into education,” Mount-Benites said, arguing that school districts often face growing pressure to help change the issues students face inside and outside the classroom. “People were on a high coming back to school and felt more connected and now there seems to be this distance coming back and we’ve lost the ability to connect in a positive way after being isolated for 18 month.”
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