Days of monotony inside, constant Zoom links and screens, all the while worrying about your and your family’s health. This is the reality of this school year – one unfathomably different than any other.
For faculty at Burton Magnet Elementary School, bolstering the mental health of their students has always been a priority. Since returning to online classes almost two months ago, they’ve had to innovate new ways to get that done.
“Seeing teachers on Canvas or on Zoom is not the same as somebody touching your shoulder and saying you can do it, telling you that you did a good job,” Principal Kimberly Ferrell said. “We can’t provide the same support we could when face to face.”
Anticipating this struggle districtwide, Durham Public Schools developed new tools to promote social and emotional learning and mental health. Wellness Wednesdays is one initiative: one day of the week when students and staff are urged to focus on holistic wellness.
Wellness Wednesdays look different depending on a student’s grade and school, but DPS and each school provide activities focused on personal growth.
There are both live Zoom sessions to learn about aspects of social emotional learning, as well as documents stuffed with ideas offline, independent activities that students and families can tackle for their mental and physical health.
For October, many schools scheduled anti-bullying programming in tandem with Bullying Prevention Month.
Emotional learning has been a part of priority four of DPS’s five-year strategic plan, focusing on “strengthening school, family, and community engagement,” said Laverne Mattocks-Perry, DPS’s senior executive director of student support services.
The transition to virtual learning this fall presented an opportunity, Mattocks-Perry said, to focus more intentionally on social emotional learning and holistic wellness of students.
“Everything that we’ve been reading from practitioners tells us that all of the things going on – the economic factors related to COVID-19, civil unrest, abrupt adaptations in how we operate daily as a school – that has been classified as a traumatic childhood experience,” said Mattocks-Perry.
Matthew Hickson, director of online learning, and others reached out to local mental health agencies and conntected with community groups around Durham to work up programming.
On Wednesdays, the district uploads a new document for students, teachers, and parents to look at on the district’s new social and emotional learning hub: EMBRACE.
For example, DPS partnered with Growga to hold weekly yoga classes for students, accessible on the EMBRACE website. They partnered with Triangle United Soccer for a weekly soccer lesson and with other organizations for outdoors activities and cooking tips.
“We really want Wednesdays to be a time for our students to really take a step back. You know, they’re in this intense environment, and so we want all of them to take these days and use them as a time to reflect,” Hickson said.
Elementary schools often have much more structured Wednesdays to ensure heightened support, Hickson said. Burton Magnet Elementary School, located in East Durham off South Alston Avenue is an example.
Burton is a magnet school where a majority of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, many of whom were displaced by the crisis at McDougald Terrace last spring. Mental health support there doesn’t stop on the internet.
Using both DPS’s guidelines and their own creativity, Burton Elementary’s leadership spent about eight weeks before school resumed training on the new mental health virtual resources.
“We can’t provide the type of support that we normally give as part of the process. So we came up with a list of activities that we found ways to connect with his students online,” said Tameko Piggee, a Burton social worker.
Burton designed a check-in system that lets students alert teachers about how their minds and bodies feel. They place themselves in color zones in Google Docs: blue for boredom, exhaustion, sadness; green for positive emotions, feeling ready for the day ahead; yellow for feeling out of control and in need of some support; and red to signal extreme emotions, anger and aggression included.
After students pick their spots, school social worker and counselors can identify students in need of aid and reach out.
Teachers are constantly looking out for students who are struggling but aren’t necessarily speaking up about it, said school counselor Ponsella Brown.
“There are times when we will get messages from teachers. So, we go into the classrooms, virtual through the breakouts and work with students who are dealing not only with COVID-19,” she said. Housing crises can crop up, so can illness and death in families.
School staff still try to help with students’ more physical needs, despite the pandemic. Many students began quarantine without desks, sitting on floors or couches to do work. So, with the service organization Triangle Park Chapter of Links, they provided 80 desks for Burton students.
After the Durham Board of Education decided on Sept. 24 to keep schools remote the rest of the semester, Ferrell said they are ready to keep using Wellness Wednesdays and their own tools to educate and take care of their students online indefinitely.
“The nuance of this new environment for some of our families, was scary,” Ferrell said. “But, we know we’ll always have a relationship with our community. And they trust us.”
9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
At top: Students can view dancing and other activities during a break from virutal classroom lessons on Wednesdays. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School