As the new school year arrives Monday for the Hall County School District, officials say they have prepared not just for the physical health of students, but also for their mental health.
Tamara Etterling, Director of Student Services in Hall County, said she is well aware of the potential effects the coronavirus pandemic has had - and may continue to have - on students. She said more than 3,000 employees took a mental health and trauma awareness course to prepare for the students' return.
“Our priority for back-to-school is truly on the social and mental well being of our kids,” Etterling said. “Reading and writing and math are extremely important, but our goal that first week coming back is that we are making sure that those needs are being met. Their safety is number one - feeling physically safe and emotionally safe.”
Etterling explained that they are employing a “trickle-down” approach, meaning principals will check in on teachers and staff, and teachers and staff then check in on students.
“We are taking care of ourselves and each other in order to take care of our students,” Etterling said.
For the younger kids, they plan to focus on helping them identify how they are feeling by letting the students choose emojis. For older students, who may be more apprehensive to talk about their emotions, they will be able to anonymously share with someone, either in person or online.
Hall County School District Superintendent Will Schofield addressed the mental health awareness training in a video update he released on Aug. 19, saying each team member received three hours of training. He called the training a "healing gesture."
"Let's just be real honest with each other," Schofield said. "We've all been through some sort of a collective trauma over the past six months as we've learned to live a new normal in the age of a pandemic."
Schofield said the training puts Hall County educators in a better position to help students cope with the new school year.
According to the CDC website, social distancing can make people feel “isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety,” and students are no exception.
Linda Campbell, a professor at the University of Georgia in the department of Counseling and Human Development Services, explained that older students in middle and high school deal with stress differently than younger students. She said it is likely that students are experiencing stress from not completing their previous school year and from being quarantined with family over the summer.
“[Reactions] could range anywhere from a depression, to anxiety, to levels of conflict, to other kinds of emotional dysregulation that they really can't help,” Campbell said.
Campbell offered advice for students who are returning to school for in-person learning. She said that it is crucial for students to take the health guidelines seriously, meaning wearing masks and staying six feet apart. She also urged students to look into counseling, despite the stigma that still surrounds it.
“Everyone has been affected and continues to be affected by this virus - everybody,” Campbell said. “And it is not an embarrassment.”