‘Troubling times for all of us’ — Student mental health concerns weigh on Johnson County schools heading into semester altered by COVID-19

School officials across Johnson County say mental health concerns are top of mind heading into the 2020-21 academic year, as many students are set to learn remotely and not have as many social interactions with peers and teachers.

Mental health professionals at Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe school districts have been putting together a wide and varied range of resources to address the mental health of students, their families, teachers and employees, as they begin their new year under a cloud of uncertainty.

But district staff members emphasized Thursday night at the monthly meeting of the Overland Park Mental Health Task Force that parents especially have an important role to play by trying to stay positive amid unprecedented upheaval in their children’s lives.

“Our parents and our community really set the tone for this school year,” said Angie Salava, with the Olathe school district counseling staff. “It’s not going to look like what we had prior to mid-March, but it’s still going to be good.”

Salava and other representatives of the three districts met with task force members to talk about how schools plan to address the mental health issues that have come up as officials cope with delayed starts and remote learning made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic.

They presented a long list of resources and models to bolster students’ emotional needs, but parents can be pivotal role models, they said.

“These are troubling times for all of us,” said Johnson County Mental Health Director Tim DeWeese. “Everyone’s experiencing this for the first time. It’s an opportunity for us to change that narrative. Do we want to say this is the end of the world, that our kids are going to be scarred for life or do we want to say this is going to build a generation of young people that are resilient and can overcome just about anything?”

Plans being put in place

The school officials stressed that teachers have been working hard on coming up with teaching methods that are innovative and fun. But there will also be an emphasis on meeting students’ emotional and basic health needs, too. A class might start the day, for example, with a discussion of how students are feeling, they said.

Counselors will also attune themselves to the physical needs of students whose families are struggling with unemployment, food insecurity and financial hardships, they said, so that their children can be better able to learn.

COVID-19 upended the last school year, sending kids home in mid-March, and has delayed the start of school in Johnson County for the 2020-21 academic year. Because the number of cases is still considered high by the county health department, most of the county’s six public school districts will start the fall semester with some students learning remotely and other students attending school at least part of the time for in-person instruction.

Shawnee Mission is the only district in the county that plans to start the semester with all students in remote learning, when classes start Sept. 8.

Those drastic changes have flipped the kind of clients mental health professionals have been hearing from in recent weeks, DeWeese said. County mental health has been providing fewer services to their previous clients who have already been building up mental resilience, he said.

“It’s the kids and the families that were never even on our radar that are the ones that are hitting our hotlines, calling us and coming to our buildings,” he said Thursday night.

Keeping tabs on students

The district officials told the committee they have been doing everything they can to provide enough counselors and evidence-based programs like Sources of Strength for middle schoolers and Project Happiness for younger kids. Those programs promote social and emotional learning and seek to prevent suicide.

Even with the programs, though, there are still some worries. John McKinney, Director of Family and Students Services with Shawnee Mission, said he sees a potential problem in keeping tabs on students who simply don’t log on to their classes for extended periods and can’t be reached.

“It’s a real concern for me,” he said.

But the schools have each developed plans to get counseling to those who need it, and parents shouldn’t be afraid to reach out for help, the districts said.

Mark Schmidt, assistant superintendent of special education in Blue Valley, said, “We are very fortunate within Johnson County that we’ve come together and continue to come closer together to provide these wrap-around services to the entire community. We know that none of us are an island, that we work together and what happens in one affects the other.”

Overland Park City Councilmember Chris Newlin, chair of the task force, opened the meeting by saying mental health of students shouldn’t become politicized.

“I hope people aren’t using mental health for political purposes,” in arguments about reopening plans, he said. If a person is concerned about a student’s mental health, “please reach out and help those kids. Let’s don’t just talk about it online. Let’s actually be reaching out and helping.”

Concerned families can call their school’s main number to get referred to help, the officials said. Johnson County Mental Health also has an emergency services line that can answer questions, DeWeese said. That number is 913-268-0156.