For Anza Trail Elementary School counselor Lindsay Romero, the highlight of her days are when she talks to a student.
Like everyone else, she misses in-person interactions.
“Being away from school adds a barrier to contacting me,” she said. “Even though we’re all completely open there's the added variable of being in a digital platform. Where on campus kids can see me on their own, parents now have to make an appointment or email me.”
Since the closure of statewide school locations, Sahuarita Unified School District has seen a decrease in the number of students using counseling services. All the district’s schools still offer counseling services but it has switched to a phone and digital format.
Brett Bonner, assistant superintendent for educational services, said they have been working with counselors, the district's two clinical psychologists and the district’s social worker to establish ways to support students’ mental health and wellness.
“The district knows the importance of well being through this and alongside the distance learning we embed a balanced approach to counseling to meet the needs of the student population,” he said.
Bonner and Romero attributed the drop off in the number of students receiving counseling to the new digital method, and said there’s been a change in the reasons a student is seeking help.
“Historically students physically would seek a counselor for help because of trouble with a friend or peer, but now with distance learning their peers are not with them,” Bonner said. “Without the brick and mortar locations the variables have changed and counselors say they have less contact but are more targeted and more specific as far as requests or needs.”
Where students were previously seeking help on more social aspects of their lives, they’re now reaching out with technology struggles and a sense of missing out.
“Families navigating this new reality are dealing with needs like food, employment, anxiety or stress and a lot of families and students are having a sense of grief over not having closure for their school year,” Bonner said. “We went on Spring Break and then never came back so there’s no closure and we are trying to commit to honoring symbolic traditions (like prom and graduation).”
Romero said kids are struggling with the changes to school. She has also been helping parents feeling the pressure of working and acting in a teacher role to a degree themselves.
“It is really important for adults to manage our own stress levels because our kids are taking their cues from us,” she said.
The state didn’t provide specific guidance on requirements for counseling or mental health services during school closures, and the district focused on creating a counseling model that still provided personalized resources for students.
For those with trouble accessing online counseling or resources, the district has made packets available similar to the distance learning alternatives for students with limited or no technology or internet access.
A big focus for the district’s counselors now is identifying and reaching out to students who the district has still not been able to get in contact with.
Community resources for youth mental health can see potential impacts from distance learning.
Jenifer Regan, director of Youth and Family Services at Cope Community Services, said the closing of physical school locations is bound to have an impact on students’ mental well-being.
“Schools closing are a big deal because a lot of times this is where kids have a social outlet,” she said. “School is everything and kids miss their classes, PE, they miss all of it; the world’s become a bit of a scarier place for kids.”
Cope has a location in Sahuarita and is still offering services for youth ages 6 and up. Since COVID-19, they have been able to shift the majority of their services to phone and telemedicine formats, like one-on-one and group sessions. They are additionally offering some behavioral health services in-person following social distancing and safety guidelines.
Regan is hopeful youth and their families will turn to them for help through these uncertain times.
“A lot of families we serve who we are calling are saying they’re going to wait for services until this is over, which is kind of scary,” she said. “We know there is a strain on families with folks worried about their jobs, homeschooling and kids have lost their routine and extra curricular activities.”
Cope accepts both AHCCCS and private insurance. The best way to get services for youth is to visit their website at www.copecommunityservices.org.
They are currently doing intakes digitally or over the phone.
Romero's goal is for students to know they still have support and it’s OK to feel frustrated, scared or confused by this new normal.
“It's OK to be worried about this or what's going on in the world,” she said. “I've talked about being kind to ourselves and families having expectations but also knowing it won't look perfect and that's OK, too.”