New Mexico School children reported to classes on Monday August 8th and parents, staff and administrators are hoping for a more normal productive school year. Yet there are some important changes and challenges that Taos Behavioral Health (TBH) staff see clearly.
Realities of returning
School is for most students—the anchor of their lives. There is structure, a schedule, friends to interact with, teachers to support them. Returning to that reality is both a gift and a challenge especially dependent on how they have weathered these past years.
It has been 2 ½ years of dealing with disrupted schedules: on-line learning suddenly taxed the resources of households. Were there any computers able to accommodate the school programs for learning on-line? Were there enough in the household if there were multiple students? Was an adult home who could support this learning? Was transportation available to go to hot spots for internet access if there was none at home?
During this period, TBH rented facilities to bring 90 students into a face-to-face setting where stable pods of 5 received support, educational access and therapeutic interventions. Over time—we responded to changes in the school schedule in which some schools and classrooms returned in person and others were still quarantined as data on COVID transmission was tracked. Often we helped provide transportation so students could get services.
Taos was not experiencing anything unique to this country—indeed to the world. Suddenly countries everywhere experienced the stress of seeing youth exposed to dramatic changes in the orderly schedule of their lives –and adults who had never experienced such a health challenge themselves had to figure out what to do.
Data from worldwide studies estimates that youth lost 35% of their learning achievements in the 21/2 years of COVID. Much of the loss appeared immediately and recovery has been minimal. Nationwide students lost more skills in math than in reading–perhaps reflecting the more complex job of tutoring math by parents or volunteers.
Behavioral health impacts
TBH staff recognized a greater level of anxiety and depression in at least a third of their clients. Acting out as school starts up again and “COVID is over” presents a challenge to everyone. Depending on support students had, they may or may not be able to slide into a “normal school life” easily. Those who did not have positive support faced fears about the virus spread, anxiety about the loss of family income and patterns of negative coping such as isolation, avoidance of truth, excessive internet use and substance abuse.
Interventions during COVID demanded creative resources. Youth needed help to reduce their stress by getting accurate health information, engaging in physical activity, responding to limits on screen time, learning to re-frame problems into possible growth opportunities, and having solid support from family and friends.
Schools were challenged to find the best ways of helping students recover from losses. Research suggests that summer programs and individual tutoring were the most effective in
Increasing academic skills—but these demand more resources from the district. In the TBH summer programs students were encouraged in language, reading and problem solving to assist in skill recovery. But many students had little support.
Now it is time–To really concentrate on the importance of emotional health—to assist families and educators to stabilize schedules and clarify expectations. In all of Taos county schools, TBH has staff in place for the entire day—meeting with groups, accepting new referrals, responding to behavioral health emergencies, collaborating with teachers. Planning conferences are continuing with Red River and Eagle Nest district; Questa clients are being served off-site from the schools.
Some positive aspects of the journey through COVID have been the strengthening of TBH-family communication and the emphasis on teaching youth coping skills. Parents whose children were served by TBH learned that even if school was not in session, the TBH staff would call daily to check in with youth and parents—keeping track of needs.
At TBH we stand ready to observe and communicate new needs on a daily basis. Our staff supported each other and developed creative ways to help clients gain coping strengths throughout the pandemic. Now it is time to see the rainbow and move forward with optimism and strength.
TBH has the largest licensed and credentialed behavioral health staff in northern New Mexico. We can be reached at www.Taosbehavioralhealth.org at 575-758-4297 or at 105 Bertha in Taos.
Mary McPhail Gray is the board chair of TBH and can be reached at 575-779-3126 or at firstname.lastname@example.org