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Valley students balance anxiety, learning

The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa. — Justin Strawser and Rick Dandes jstrawser The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa.

Oct. 18-- Oct. 18--Students in Line Mountain School District say the stress of school in the time of COVID-19 has manifested in different ways from fear of the unknown to physical reactions.

"I was so stressed out that I didn't feel like doing the work," said senior Alex Michael. "I was sad and down. I don't know how others were handling it, but I know for me it wasn't fun or good for me. I came back and I'm a lot happier."

Michael, 18, of Dalmatia, who started the year attending class virtually, said he was so stressed out with online learning during the first three weeks of his senior year that he had a first-time seizure.

Young people in schools across the Valley are not only dealing with the usual pressures of school, but are also managing stress of the pandemic and the restrictions that come with it.

Lilly and Mary Fessler, of Line Mountain, said their first year of high school has been especially difficult.

The 14-year-old twin sisters from Dornsife said they spent plenty of time with the school counselors and mental health professionals at Line Mountain since the first day of school on Aug. 24 to talk about their emotions.

"I don't want to catch COVID," said Lilly Fessler, who wears both a cloth mask and plastic shield, just like her sister. "Our mom is high risk. I wear the mask to protect her. We don't want to be the ones who give it to mom."

The girls admit they were nervous to sneeze or cough for the first couple days of school. They also said they were sometimes teased by other students for wearing both sets of masks.

"We're trying to save our mom," said Mary Fessler.

Michael said the work was hard, he didn't feel like he had enough guidance from the teachers and he was losing sleep. After his seizure, he returned to in-person classes and he said he has been thriving.

The Fessler sisters and Michael both take advantage of the mental health services that Line Mountain has to offer, including group sessions, meditation sessions and one-on-one sessions.

Line Mountain two guidance counselors and three mental health professionals for students in grades 5-12, including Amanda Snyder and Trystanne Toczylousky. When students who are stressed out, like the Fessler freshmen, come to them, Snyder said she talks to them about how to decrease that stress -- take deep breaths, think about what they like to do at home and look at the positive because things usually get better.

"We run groups with sixth grade to talk about stress management, emotion control," said Snyder. "We talk about anger sadness, fear, disgust with things. We tie in stress management to help deal with all the things going on: school stress, stress at home, stress outside the home in the community. Especially now, with the pandemic going on, there's a lot of stress with coming back to school, wondering what will happen, will school continue to be open, what exactly will go on."

Snyder said it can be hard to focus with a lot of stress, so it's important to deal with it in a positive environment.

"That way they're not carrying the stress home," she said. "If it's going on at home, we help them cope with it here so it's not spilling over. It helps them be more successful in their school work and everything they have going on in their lives."

Toczylousky said they provide social services and general counseling for mental health issues. Students can be referred by parents or teachers, or students can ask to meet with them or they can join the group sessions or meditation groups.

"It's a benefit for students because they can see that other students are going through the same issues," said Toczylousky. "They're not going through it alone. They feed off of each other and help each other out. A lot of students don't know how to cope with their feelings. It's something they feel no one else understands. When they have someone to talk to, they can learn different ways to cope with their feelings and process them."

Junior Kalli Adams, 17, of Herndon, said she was bored when she was home, and appreciates the services Line Mountain has to offer.

"I have anxiety and depression, so it helps calm me down," Adams said.

Children's Service Center

The Children's Service Center, based in Wilkes-Barre, provides mental health services for Line Mountain Elementary, Mount Carmel Area Elementary, Shikellamy Middle School, Grace S. Beck Elementary in Shikellamy School District and Shamokin Area Elementary. Mount Carmel became its first program in the northcentral area in 2010, according to Joshua Burns, the Northcentral Community and School-Based Behavioral Health Supervisor for Children's Service Center.

"Now that we're back in the schools, having that office and location for those students who have anxiety about returning and masks and social distancing and other procedures, maybe concerns about academics, they have that place where they can come in and let that all out and work with the team," said Burns. "For those students who are attending virtually, we provide virtual sessions. They can really access us at any time."

Districts contract with Children's Service Center upon request. Students are identified through referrals. The Center provides assessment and treatment planning over a six-month period and then reassesses to determine whether services are still appropriate or outside services are needed. All decisions are made with the student, the parents and district, said Burns.

As schools closed early last academic year and switched to online instruction, Burns said the Center also pivoted to virtual services. Sessions still continued online with individuals and families on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

"They didn't miss a step with us," he said.

The pandemic has increased many mental health symptoms around depression and anxiety. It's important to defeat the stigma of mental health, particularly at the high school level, said Burns.

"Everyone struggles at some point in their life," he said. "It's OK to talk about it, it's OK to seek support. Especially now, people need extra support with all the new stressors in place. They can recognize it and have access to it (professional help)."

Karen Rockwell, a mental health professional with the Children's Service Center stationed at Mount Carmel Area, said she and two behavioral health workers work together as a team and each day looks different in the office. They assist with services as problems arise or check in daily with students who are part of the program, she said.

"We see the families, parents who need education, who need assistance with communication in the home. It ranges and there are many different variables," said Rockwell. "We work in the home, the school, the community. We have a lot of discussions about COVID. There's a general anxiety about being sick."

One example is a student who returned recently from online learning who had a lot of anxiety when in the classroom. Rockwell said they helped her set up a safe, quiet place during the day to calm down.

Kids were excited to return

Amy Veach is a guidance counselor at Selinsgrove Elementary School, where she works with children from Kindergarten through second grade, which ranges from 5 to 8 years old. Veach has 17 years of experience as a counselor.

"Typically at this level we see a lot of anxiety about just coming to school for the first time," she said. "Even if they have been in preschool, this is such a different setting -- being all day, five days a week. That anxiety isn't uncommon."

What was unusual this year, Veach said, was that kids were so excited to get back to school.

"We told them things would be different this year," she said. "Of course, the kindergartners, they've never known how things were, they didn't know any different. Our first- and second-graders came in and said, 'wow, the school looks different.' The spacing in classrooms, our gym is half a gym, half eating space. We have kids eating in the hallway to get that true six-feet of space between students.

"I had anticipated that this would be hard," she said. "Kids had been at home for so long, that there would be separation anxiety. But we really didn't see that. Maybe there was a little bit of that, but the kids were really excited to come to school and be with peers. It's the big thing I noticed, how important that is to them. Even wearing a mask ... we were concerned how that was going to go but the kids were amazing. They'll keep it (the masks) on ... they just want to be with other kids."

Veach reports no significant cases of increased student anxiety so far this year, she said.

Last year was even harder, with the shutdown, she said. "We couldn't see the kids or talk to the kids ... about the virus. Or talk about why people are wearing masks so that kids would not be afraid when it all initially began. That was the big thing then. Kids not knowing when they were going to get back to school."

Being a school counselor is like being a middle-man, Veach said. "We have a lot of interaction with kids."

Veach watches as kids come into school and leave, interacts socially, even visits every classroom.

Behavior, emotional concerns

Mary Tiffin, who works in the guidance department at the Liberty Valley Intermediate School in the Danville Area School district, describes her role as "an intervention specialist. I deal with many of the social, emotional, behavioral concerns that kids bring to school -- that impact them in their daily lives. The goal for my role is that I seek to alleviate some of that social, emotional burden. And to make them school appropriate, or school ready."

Tiffin has been an intervention specialist for two years. Prior to that she did social work in the Geisinger health care system.

Many times, kids come to school with a lot on their shoulders, Tiffin said, "so we try to lift the burden or teach them skills to deal with whatever is going on in their lives, allowing them to focus on their school work."

For some kids who don't have stability in their homes, "we offer them stability and someplace to land," she said.

"Issues or problems are exacerbated because of the pandemic," Tiffin said. "It's like any other stressful time in history. If there are problems in the family, anxiety about jobs or food insecurity ... a lot of these issues are brought into light, or appear much stronger. Sometimes we, as parents, try to protect our children, but kids have that 'spidey' sense. They know what is going on, and they carry that into school with them. Things are different."

Kids worry for their parents too, she said. "If their parent is an essential worker, they worry about their parent's safety. They worry about the stress that their parents are under. Kids are feeling human beings. They bring a lot to school."

Depending upon the level of acuity, Tiffin will meet (as needed) with students one-on-one or in a group setting, to let the kids know that they are not alone in feeling this way. In some rare cases, she will go into a classroom, she said.

Social Emotional Wellness group

Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit's Director of Outreach Bernadette Boerckel said there is a Social Emotional Wellness Community of Practice that meets virtually each month. This group is comprised of a wide variety of organizations and representatives interested in collaborating to break down the silos of mental health and SEW resources that exist in the communities to better serve districts and families.

"So far, we have worked to ensure that districts had what they needed during the early stages of the pandemic," said Boerckel. "We also held a Crisis Response training called PREPaRE for representatives of all 17 districts and three CTS to create a regional understanding of how to respond in a crisis and how to assist one another as a network/crisis team."

CSIU also created a free virtual Introduction to Trauma Module for districts to use for professional development with teachers. It instructs on various types of trauma and the way the trauma can impact the brain, and learning and behaviors. It also introduces ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the long-term impact that they can have on a person's health and wellbeing, she said.

"The module covers some preventative factors and how a trauma-informed classroom can mitigate the adverse effects of trauma on a student," said Boerckel. "The fact is, we all experience trauma on some level, so understanding how it can impact individuals is an increasingly important part of an inclusive and supportive classroom."


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