BRISTOL, Va. — New programming at Bristol Virginia public schools is designed to help children and families cope with the added burdens of COVID-19.
Highlands Community Services will provide therapists, case workers and a crisis team to offer counseling, behavioral support, crisis management and other types of support at the city’s six schools under agreements approved this week by the School Board.
The programs will be funded with more than $418,000 from the federal CARES Act and other federal funds. Of that total, $180,000 is coming from a grant of city CARES Act money that must be spent by the end of December. The balance includes part of the school division’s CARES allocation and federal Title IV funding.
“I think things are exacerbated because of the pressure of COVID,” Crystal Miller, HCS director of school-based services, said Wednesday. “That doesn’t mean life stops. All the other issues you were dealing with before COVID, you’re still dealing with.
“For a long time, people were quarantined in their homes so their access to resources and support systems — because the schools are a huge support for these students and their families — that was taken away. … We’re really looking to try to wrap services around them,” Miller said.
City schools reopened in August after being closed since March due to the public health pandemic. About 88% of city students qualify for free or reduced price lunch due to their families living at or below the federal poverty level, according to the Virginia Department of Education. City schools have historically had significant numbers of families living in poverty and dealing with homelessness or other challenges.
In addition, many city families are still dealing with lost income due to business slowdowns and closings brought on by the virus.
The city’s August jobless rate was 7.7%, the second highest in Southwest Virginia and well above the state’s 6.1% average, according to the Virginia Employment Commission. Bristol, Virginia’s jobless rate rose 240% from March to April — from 4.5% to 15.3%. While it has since declined, the city’s workforce also shrank from April until August, suggesting people either moved or left the job market.
HCS currently provides six day treatment therapists — one at each school — but the new programming will add six more therapists, two case managers and a crisis person, Miller said.
“Last year, we had 17 therapeutic day treatment staff and this year we’re at six. It was a major reduction in that particular service due to cutbacks from the Department of Behavioral Health and DMAS [Virginia’s Department of Medical Assistance Services],” she said.
“We’ve taken a lot of the services we provide in our clinics and moved them to the schools. Our outpatient therapists, all schools will have a therapist in their building and elementary schools will have a case manager to help families connect them to services. We still have one day treatment counselor per school and a mobile crisis staff who is able to go to schools, go to family’s homes to intervene in a crisis situation,” Miller said.
About 70% of the city’s 2,100 students attend classes four days per week, 30% are at home learning online and all students do virtual learning from home on Fridays.
In deciding to reopen, school officials tried to balance the health risks of reopening in person with the potential educational and emotional impacts on students shut out of schools for five months, Superintendent Keith Perrigan said.
“We know if we don’t take care of those basic needs that our students have we can’t ever get to the educational needs they have,” Perrigan said. “Connecting that home-to-school gap with mental health services is going to be huge. We will be able to provide some in-home services for our remote students and, without those services, those students are going to be much less likely to be successful academically.”
Faith Mabe, principal at Washington-Lee Elementary, credits previous efforts to address emotional well-being of students as integral to the school’s turnaround from being ranked among the bottom 10% of schools in Virginia to one of 71 Distinguished Title I schools in the nation and among the top schools in the state.
“We’ve always had good teachers, good curriculum and students capable of achieving. I think the difference came because we recognized something was missing and identified the missing piece of the puzzle: we had to become sensitive to students’ trauma and social-emotional needs. We had students with mental health needs that weren’t being addressed,” Mabe wrote in an email.
Working with Highlands Community Services and Communities in Schools, the division implemented changes that reaped immediate results, she wrote.
“Children of trauma often have over- or under-reactive behaviors to the school environment, rapid changes or extreme emotions, language development delays and lack of background experiences that ready them for school. They also experience difficulties listening and concentrating,” Mabe wrote. “Mental health professionals help us as we establish an environment of structure and routine by supporting student development of self-regulation strategies, reflection skills, coping mechanisms and mindfulness. The support students receive through mental health services such as therapeutic day treatment counselors, school-based therapists and crisis workers provide safe, positive experiences within the school environment.”
That has translated into quantifiable success in the classroom.
“We have lots to offer students in the public school, but if their mental health and social-emotional needs are not met first, they are not able to make the most of the opportunities we offer,” Mabe wrote. “Behaviors that often interfere with academic success can now be overcome through strong relationship support and skill building.”
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