Social-Emotional/Mental Health with a COVID Twist:  How the Prescott Schools Are Adjusting to a Heightened Crisis

While the Covid-19 topic continues to dominate many conversations in the community and especially schools, we are headed toward some normalcy. Thank goodness.  

On January 22, 320 Prescott Unified School District (PUSD) teachers and staff received their first vaccine. In an unbelievable show of teamwork in our community, the process was as smooth as anyone could hope for. The second vaccine is scheduled for February 19th.

Although the vaccines pave a clear way to get back to in-person instruction, it does take time to get to this finish line safely. PUSD will be phasing back to in-person learning in incremental steps. While frustrating to all of us, these decisions must balance the health and safety, and also the opinions of the entirety of the PUSD community: nearly 4000 students and their families, 450 teachers and staff, and the greater Prescott Community of that we are a part of.  

All along, and certainly before COVID-19, PUSD and schools across Arizona and the United States have been putting resources toward one of the fastest growing concerns that I have seen in my career: unmet social, emotional and mental needs of our students. While this was not a high-level school responsibility when I started teaching in the 90’s, you would be hard pressed to find an educator that does not include this issue as one of the top concerns in education today. Now, throw a year of students being on and off of home distance learning into this pandemic chaos, and we have a whole new level of mental health needs.  

First, let me circle back to my most recent column in the Daily Courier from December 23 to connect to past knowledge and start a conversation about mental health in our schools and our homes. To address current distance learning strategies, I stated, “Counselors and Social Emotional Therapists are working with students and teachers to create strategies designed to get students talking in healthy social and emotional ways, every day.”

Next, I stated some concerns, “ …we know that virtual learning will never compare to the impact of body language and facial expressions of in-person teaching and learning. We have said that all along. We know that the social-emotional needs are not being met. We have warned about that right along with everyone else. We understand, and we are saddened that sometimes school is safer than home.  We have poured unbelievable resources into that failure of our society. We are and will continue to make the best of that situation.”

This issue of student mental health concerns started to rear its head several years ago. Initially, I began to hear, through the principal grapevine, more and more stories of distraught students with lack of support at home and how that affected their school experience. I remember one day, our high school principal said to the Principal Team, “We can barely even get school started each day until we clear the counseling office of students trying to deal with what happened to them the night before.” This grabbed my attention, and the other principals were clearly in similar spots.  

The next big realization was when I was at a state professional development for school administrators. I can not remember the topic of the training session, but the trainer was derailed when she asked us to do a “pair share” on the topic with others in the room. The conversation turned quickly away from the topic to, “What in the world are you guys doing about the increasing student social-emotional and mental health needs of your students?” When the entire room began to express their distress, I realized two things: 1) We have a big problem, and 2) It’s statewide and nationwide.

What has PUSD done to support this nationwide issue of student social emotional needs?

PUSD has been at the forefront of dedicating resources to this issue since very early in the game. Our Governing Board had found ways to shift funding to this as a priority over the last several years. As of the current fiscal year, PUSD has now prioritized ten positions totaling a dedication of $572,379 to provide social/emotional support for students. This support equates to staff working with students as follows:

  • 2 Behavior/Inclusion Specialists providing social emotional support throughout the district for special education students
  • 2 Social Emotional/Mental Health Counselors providing social-emotional support at elementary schools
  • 1 Social Emotional/Mental Health Counselor providing social-emotional support at the middle school level 
  • 1 Social Emotional/Mental Health Counselor providing student social-emotional support at the high school level
  • 1 Student Support Coordinator providing positive life skill coaching with high school students and staff
  • 3 Elementary Character Coaches providing social-emotional support as well as coaching students to make good decisions at Granite Mountain and the three elementary schools

I asked our social-emotional staff to share what their jobs are all about:

“Social-emotional (SE) counselors are licensed social workers or counselors with the State of Arizona.  This means that we have Master’s degrees with years of experience, supervision, and hundreds of hours of clinical experience. We enjoy working with children from kindergarten, through their senior year as a Badger. The primary focus of counseling is on building students’ capacity for academic success and positive social and emotional well-being. SE Counselors work closely with administration, teachers, staff, and parents to coordinate, facilitate, and implement mental health support services. Counselors work with students individually and in groups, with all populations whether they are in general education or special education.“

“SE counselors can deal with the full spectrum of crisis: from the death of a family member, a mental health crisis, or a problem with classmates on the playground. We assess, triage, and connect students and their families to services that can improve their outcomes at school, and help students become their most authentic selves. The team at PUSD enjoys talking to parents and helping with any issues that families might be dealing with currently.”

These counselors are a great resource in leveraging social emotional support into every classroom in PUSD and continue to provide teletherapy during virtual learning. In addition to this, our teachers and staff have received direct professional training in supporting social-emotional learning for several years now to implement strategies into their everyday classroom interactions with students. Examples of these trainings over the years include titles such as: Stress Less and Feel Your Best, Psychological First Aid Training, Trauma Informed Classrooms, Stress Reduction For Teens, Strong From the Inside Out,  De-escalation Strategies, and too many more to name.

Hopefully, many of our parents have heard of two extensive programs that PUSD has adopted in the last five years to create an overarching platform for social-emotional support and learning of our students: Capturing Kids Hearts and Kids at Hope. Both have been great community efforts supported by our PUSD Education Foundation and made possible by partnerships with the James Family Foundation and the Margaret T. Morris Foundation. Our teachers continue to implement these programs into their online instruction as much as possible.

Capturing Kids’ Hearts

Capturing Kids’ Hearts is a process used by schools across the nation to build stronger relationships with students.The primary focus of CKH is to develop healthy relationships and teach effective skills that help students increase self-management, increase positive behaviors, reinforce emotional intelligence, increase classroom rapport, develop empathy, and increase motivation.

Kids at Hope 

Kids at Hope is a strategic, cultural framework designed to engage entire communities to support success for all children, no exceptions.The vision is that every child is afforded the belief, guidance and encouragement that creates a sense of hope and optimism, supported by a course of action needed to experience success at life’s four major destinations: Home & Family; Education & Career; Community & Service; and Hobbies & Recreation.

These culture programs are also supported in many organizations in Prescott, formally and informally, and create natural segways to the many partnerships that we have embraced to support our students with these needs. We love partnering with our community organizations, and always go out of our way to capitalize on these partnerships that support our students. Examples are: Armed to Know, Boys to Men, Peer Mentoring, Girl Talk, The Launch Pad, Women’s Empowerment Groups for teens, Big Brothers/Big Sister, Bigs in Blue programs, Pet Partners of Prescott, Read With Me Team, and Love and Logic Parent Trainings. We also continue to work closely with the Yavapai County Education Service Agency, who has focused on bringing many supportive Grants and programs to schools across the County..

In Prescott Unified, we understand that, because of the pandemic, distance learning has complicated and intensified these social-emotional and mental concerns because students are not able to connect in person. We are encouraged that the end of this is in sight, but understand that the need for parents to be able to access and understand these concepts is at a new and heightened level. We are excited to be expanding communication and education for parents and community with more extensive website resources at prescottschools.com. We are also excited about current discussions with our Armed to Know partners who have always focused on mental health concerns and are looking at new ways to help support families through family events and extended communications on the topic.

More than ever, we know that we cannot educate if we do not make sure the students are first taken care of emotionally. If a student’s mental outlook is not balanced, he or she will not likely be focused on the academics being taught. This is not a COVID issue, it is an issue made worse by COVID. This is not a school issue; it is a societal issue.

The funding of these added positions and programs is not free. It is not an extra line item provided by the state (with the exception of one grant position at the middle school level.) In a state like Arizona, where we are at the bottom of the nation for per-pupil funding, we do not have a legislature finding ways to support these mental health needs with funding, like in many states. So the prioritization for social emotional learning is a priority that takes funding resources away from existing positions and programs and teacher salaries. While politicians often recognize and talk about these mental health needs, similar to recent unfunded minimum wage increases, school districts are on their own in terms of how to fund social emotional support.  

What can we all do to support this nationwide issue of student social emotional needs?

How do we treat this as a societal issue instead of a school issue? Where to start? Despite this lack of funding, PUSD has made great sacrifices to our programs, salaries and class sizes to meet this need at a high level. We are pouring as many resources into this as we can.  Teachers are taking a part of their classroom time to check in with their students daily on their social-emotional state.  The aforementioned Character Coaches and counselors are available to all of our students and have extended an open invitation to be contacted to address social-emotional needs, but we need everyone in the community to extend a helping hand to support our concepts such as Kids at Hope that state, “we believe all kids can be successful, without exception.”  How can all of us help our Prescott children to see the possibility of a brighter future in all areas of their life?  How can we pull together as a community to believe that we will persevere through this pandemic despite our differences and unite on behalf of our children?  Let’s engage our kids in discussions about their future; let’s help them see their potential and purpose.  This is what we will be doing in PUSD.  Parents and community members- please do not hesitate to reach out to PUSD and our social-emotional counselors.  You can find their contact information and many other online social-emotional resources at https://sites.google.com/prescottschools.com/pusd-social-emotional-services/home.  It is a great place to start.

While we are proud of the priority we have put on this problem in PUSD, other districts and schools may or may not have prioritized resources this way, creating another great inequity.  Let us push Arizona to fund public education into the top 40 states of our country, just as a starting point, instead of continuing to remain in the bottom 5. Let us ask for a plan to move that needle forward so that instead of funding the status quo or less, we do not take away from dwindling resources to support the next great crisis, such as mental health. It is up to all of us to get Arizona children the support they need!