“Supporting Student Mental Health During School Closure” Community of Practice Meetings: A Brief Summary of Topics and Resources

by DPI Education Consultants Gregg Curtis, Molly Herrmann, Elizabeth Krubsack, and Tim Peerenboom

In an effort to provide assistance and resources for educators supporting students’ mental health during the COVID-19 school closure, DPI’s Student Services/Prevention and Wellness team conducted a series of Zoom-based weekly Community of Practice meetings with over 250 participants.  DPI staff who planned and conducted the sessions were intentional in planning the content, format and design of the meetings to address the immediate needs shared by the attendees. Over the course of eight weeks, information on specific topics was presented and attendees were given opportunities to use ‘breakout rooms’ to share with each other and to community-source a list of resources and tools they found useful in their work with students and families.  Here we share a brief summary of the salient topics covered and resources discussed during the meetings.  

Virtual Counseling and Supports

During the extended school closure, classroom instructors were tasked with providing “continuity of learning” in a virtual or distance learning format. Similarly, student services staff (school-based mental health providers) needed to determine how to provide continuity of services for students whose learning needs included social, emotional or behavioral development. Whether these are related services being provided through an IEP or general education interventions or supports being provided to small groups, there are additional considerations that need to be made when providing services virtually. Attendees discussed the challenges and benefits of using various technologies to serve students and families; often comparing their experiences and learning about new platforms from their peers. 

Responding to Crisis Virtually

Responding to student crises during extended school closures starts with the same best practice principles as would be done when providing services in-person. There are, however, some additional considerations that must be taken into account when responding. Appropriate virtual crisis response requires considering the differences between in person and virtual interactions and planning accordingly. Zero Suicide, for example, recommends in their Telehealth Tips that service providers know the location of the student and having their emergency contacts immediately available prior to or at the start of a virtual interaction. Several student services and mental health organizations have provided guidance and information related to the specific considerations needed to respond to crises at the individual, school, and community levels. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has many such resources. 

It is also important to remember that there may be situations during online or remote interactions with students in which students may signal that they are in distress. All staff working directly with students should be familiar with signs of distress and be prepared to act as “gatekeepers.” Wisconsin DPI’s online Suicide Prevention Training for All Staff is an important component of crisis response. Pupil Services staff or school-based mental health providers must then be prepared to conduct a virtual risk assessment and respond accordingly.

Self-care and Compassion Resilience for Educators

The pandemic presents the perfect storm for compassion fatigue, an umbrella term referring to feelings of depression, sadness, exhaustion, anxiety and irritation experienced by people in their work and/or personal life. With increased personal and professional demands and less access to typical supports, many educators have been experiencing compassion fatigue. Fortunately, there are many ways for educators to build their compassion resilience perspectives and skills. The Compassion Resilience Toolkit offers information, activities, and resources for school leadership and staff to understand, recognize, and minimize the experience of compassion fatigue and to increase skills in managing expectations, setting professional and personal boundaries, building effective collegial relationships, and practicing real-time and ongoing self-care. A simple way to start building staff compassion resilience is to share the videos and handouts from the Staying Resilient During COVID-19 toolkit supplement.  

Dealing with Grief and Loss

The extended period of school closure presented all students, staff, and families with immense loss. Whether it was a lost prom, lost intimate connections with friends, a lost milestone like passing your driver’s test, or a loss through the death of a friend or family member by accident, illness, or suicide, our school communities have been racked by loss. Coping, healing, and returning to a mentally and physically healthy new normal will require significant work. DPI has partnered with Dr. David Shonfeld, Director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, to address this topic.

Dr. Schonfeld is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and Professor of the Practice in the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and Pediatrics at the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He is a member the American Academy of Pediatrics Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council and served as a Commissioner for both the National Commission on Children and Disasters and the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission in Connecticut; he was the President of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (SDBP) from 2006-2007. More information about Dr. Schonfeld can be found here.

 There will be two webinars with specific content and time for processing:

Session 1:  When school starts back: Helping students and yourself cope with crisis during a pandemic.

Thursday, May 21, 2020 2:30-4:00 PM

This session, intended for pupil services professionals, summarizes the principles of psychological first aid and common reactions that may be seen in any crisis event, including the current pandemic.  It provides practical advice on how to help students and staff understand and cope with the current pandemic and begin to prepare for what may be needed to offer support to students when schools re-open.  The session will underscore the need for professional self-care and highlight some of the barriers as well as some potential solutions.  Ample time will be devoted to questions and discussion. Together, we will consider how best to support students, staff and ourselves during this evolving pandemic.

Join Zoom Meeting link:
Meeting ID: 848 0838 4382
Password: 449459

Session 2:  When school starts back: Supporting grieving students during a pandemic.
Tuesday June 2, 2020 10:00-11:30 AM

This session, intended for pupil services professionals, but appropriate as well for those without formal mental health training, will provide practical advice on how to support grieving students in any context.  A wide range of topics will be covered, including what not to stay, considerations related to grief across different cultures, how to initiate conversations with grieving students, identifying and addressing guilt, appropriate academic accommodations, and managing grief triggers.  The unique challenges of supporting grieving students during the current pandemic, as well as free resources for addressing these challenges from the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, will be shared.  Ample time will be devoted to questions and discussion.

Join Zoom Meeting link:
Meeting ID: 868 7643 9319
Password: 417349

Each webinar will be 90 minutes in length, and they will be recorded. The recordings will be posted once they have been closed-captioned.

In closing, we would like to express our heartfelt admiration and respect for the way Wisconsin educators, students, and families have responded to this closure. Supporting the hard work you have all done during this time has been humbling, and we hope you have benefitted from the Community of Practice gatherings and the resources we’ve shared. The term ‘heroes’ has been fittingly bestowed upon the frontline healthcare and emergency workers across the globe; and in our little corner of the world, you have all earned that title, too. Thank you for what you’ve done and what you will do to continue serving Wisconsin’s future.