South Orangetown Central School District

Student mental health and wellness has been at the forefront of the District’s reopening this fall. With the shift to a hybrid learning model, our school-based Student Support Teams have leveraged technology and creativity to expand counseling and mental health access and services for students. These teams are supporting each other in finding new and effective ways to engage our students and to provide support to families (and staff) who are struggling to navigate the unique demands of hybrid and fully remote schedules.

Following is an overview of their work:

Trauma-Informed Schools
In preparing for reopening, the District convened a PPS work team at each school focused on taking a trauma-sensitive approach to help students feel safe, welcomed and supported during re-entry.

The teams prepared a professional development presentation to educate staff district-wide about trauma, adverse childhood experiences, identification of students at risk and the importance of self-care to promote awareness, sensitivity and support for students. Their work also included the development of a non-academic check-in Google Form which was emailed to parents to identify students that might need additional support.

And at every school, rain or shine, support staff, teachers and administrators welcome in-person students as they arrive each morning and send them home with a friendly wave each afternoon. While it may seem like a small gesture, the intent is for every student to feel safe, seen and cared for.

Virtual Offices
At South Orangetown Middle School, School Counselors Patricia Iannucci and Siobhan Maiorano, School Psychologists Courtney Malka and Stephen Sawitsky, School Social Worker Jessenia Cursio, LCSW and School Prevention Counselor Bobbie-Angela Wong, LMSW have collaborated on the creation of a SOMS Counseling Center Google Classroom. “Our Google Classroom is accessible to all remote and in-person students and allows them to schedule appointments, check in with a counselor and find resources to help them with a variety of things,” Wong reports. “During awareness months and school-wide initiatives, our Google Classroom is updated to provide additional, relevant resources. September was Suicide Awareness Month and our team posted information on how to get help and who to call whether you’re at in school or at home.”

Meanwhile, Tappan Zee High School School Psychologists Katelin Burns, Ph.D. and Bradley Hercman, Psy.D. have created a virtual office using Bitmojis with “rooms” to support students and staff. “There are school resources, mindfulness exercises, information about our new groups, applications for smartphones, helpful websites, games that can be played over Zoom and professional development opportunities for teachers,” says Burns. “We have invited our students and staff to explore and use this as a source of support and strength.”

The TZHS Wellness Center is open, with COVID-19 safety measures in place, as a cool down space for students during their in-person weeks. But School Prevention Counselor Ponnu Varghese-John, LMSW and School Social Worker Jessenia Cursio, LCSW are also building a Virtual Wellness Center in Zoom to provide support throughout the day to students who are learning remotely. The virtual center will also host groups that will meet during lunch periods once a week.

William O. Schaefer Elementary School and Cottage Lane Elementary School Student Support Teams have also created Google Classrooms which include important announcements, resources and activities.

During Start with Hello Week we were able to engage both students and teachers at CLE & WOS in community building activities. For 2 weeks we had spirit week themes and activities to encourage inclusiveness and build community. It was so much fun that we look forward to more spirt weeks throughout the year to include all students and foster a sense of community on the elementary level.

Virtual Lunch
As part of “Start With Hello Week,” the SOMS team hosted its first virtual lunch to support the social-emotional wellbeing of remote students. Another virtual lunch session is scheduled for next week. “Students at home were able to socialize with their friends as if they were physically at lunch together. This socialization is extremely important so that kids don’t feel alone,” Wong notes. “Mrs. Iannucci and Mrs. Maiorano have also reached out and scheduled Zoom meetings with all 100% remote students so that they know how to reach us with questions or if they need help.”

“I’ve met families outside at picnic tables, FaceTimed or Zoomed to offer support and created how-to videos to facilitate understanding of the multiple digital systems in which they now have to engage,” shares School Social Worker Jessica Inglis, LCSW who serves both WOS and CLE. “With students, I continue to utilize recess to check in, run groups and continue support virtually through Zoom. Last week, a student and I engaged in a no-touch soccer game in our office!”

“We continue to support students and help parents negotiate the stress of hybrid learning. We’re always communicating to ensure that any student or family in need is addressed. It seems to be the work we always do,” Cottage Lane Elementary School School Psychologist Linda King says.

“At TZHS, we have been meeting in groups and individually in-person, on Zoom, and sometimes in a hybrid model. We have rearranged our offices and worked with administrators to set up additional larger rooms for counseling,” explains Burns. “We have screen-shared, used Google Drive activities, played virtual games and found creative ways to engage the students. One fun social skills lesson that lent itself well to the virtual environment included watching a Disney+ silent movie short together and interpreting the characters’ intentions.”

Burns and Hercman also launched a new Stress Management Group which runs once per six-day rotation and is open to all students. The session runs in a larger space to allow social distancing among in-person participants but can also be joined via Zoom by students working remotely. Topics include mindfulness and emotional regulation and problem-solving.

Teams emphasized that they continue to maintain in-person operation as close to “normal” as possible. “It’s important for students to know that while there are many changes that we all are adjusting to, there are also many things that have remained the same,” Hercman says.

Student Attendance
Teams members are working closely with administrators and teachers on student attendance, which is particularly challenging in a hybrid model and with students who are fully remote. “We are figuring out the best ways to track students who are beginning to show signs of chronic absenteeism and creative ways re-engage our students and ensure that any social-emotional or community-level needs are being addressed,” notes John. “We want all our students to be able access their education, no matter what!”

A student mental health screening form (participation is voluntary) is posted daily in the TZHS Google Classroom as an additional way to help identify students with pandemic-related or other trauma, needs, or concerns requiring immediate attention and which impact their learning.

WOS and CLE are also utilizing a check-in form which enables students to let their school teams know how they are doing. Students have the option to request a meeting in person or via Zoom. The tool was launched during distance learning and more than 150 check-ins were received from CLE students alone.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL)
At WOS and CLE, Elementary School Counselor Stephanie Mueller has worked with staff and students to keep the character education program accessible and meaningful for students, even in a hybrid environment. Through virtual assemblies and extension activities, remote and in-person learners engage in activities which promote the development of caring, resilient, empathic and flexible individuals who support one another.

TZHS teachers now have a library of SEL lessons, developed by Burns and Hercman, on topics ranging from positive psychology, coping skills, journaling and self care.

Child Study Teams
At each school, administrators, case managers, nurses and Pupil Personnel Services and Response to Intervention staff meet to discuss, plan interventions, and collaborate on supporting students who are struggling with social-emotional, behavioral, home and/or academic issues. The pandemic and remote learning have posed new challenges for students to which these teams are constantly identifying and responding. As Child Study Team chairpersons, our school psychologists have worked to establish a streamlined referral process, an efficient virtual meeting platform, and a weekly direct line of communication to ensure all are able to collaboratively problem-solve complex situations as they emerge.

“Within the context of the trauma-informed approach that has been a core component of the reopening plan, our efforts as a team continue to evolve with the presenting needs of our students, families, and staff. Our collective goal continues to be to help students and families feel safe, supported and engaged, whether they are participating in remote or in-person learning,” WOS School Psychologist Lisa Murphy, Psy.D. “What has been clear to me, as a new staff member, is the dedication and heart that fills the classrooms, halls, and offices of our schools, despite the unique challenges that we are faced with every day.”

Bitmoji Virtual Counseling Office screenshot