For many children throughout Michigan, schools are a haven that provide many basic needs, such as shelter, food, medical care and even love from caring adults.
So, what happens when schools are forced to turn to remote online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
“That doesn’t exist anymore,” said Mallory DePrekel, CEO of Communities in Schools Michigan, a nonprofit that supports students in districts across the state.
Social workers who previously worked in person with students can’t gauge to the same extent students’ emotional and mental health needs while they are only learning online, Nkenge Bergan, Kalamazoo Public Schools’ director of student services, agreed.
They also can’t scan for bruises or injuries on students who may be experiencing abuse at home, said Bergan, who helps oversee behavior specialists, home support specialists, social workers and nurses working in the district.
Adults can see tears welling up in eyes or fear revving up inside when they interact with students in person, Bergan said.
“We’re missing out on those things now,” she said.
DePrekel’s site coordinators worked in schools in Lansing, Battle Creek, Ypsilanti, Detroit, Dearborn and Pontiac, helping to meet students’ needs or simply offering a hug and loving encouragement, she said.
When teachers saw a student in need, they referred them to CIS which would provide everything from mental health check-ins, food, rides to the dentist and hygiene products, DePrekel said. CIS staff also built relationships with students and families and would check in frequently for needs or signs of abuse, she said.
“School has become this safe haven for kids,” DePrekel said. “If a kid shows up with a bruised face, there’s one more advocate for them.”
Now seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic — and since kids were last in school buildings at districts across the state — the organization still tries to provide necessary services, including social-emotional support, mental health screenings, food, technology, clothing and medical care, DePrekel said.
Staff do drive-by drop offs at students’ homes, meet kids at public parks or at food distribution sites and even drive them to necessary medical appointments, she said.
“Schools are closed. We’re not,” DePrekel said.
But, there are many challenges in doing this work outside the school buildings, DePrekel said. It’s more challenging to see signs of abuse or other issues over the phone or video call and response times are slower, she said.
“You don’t know who’s in the background who might be hindering them from speaking the truth,” DePrekel said of the children. “Could be dad or mom in the room next door then when the kid is talking to our site coordinator; they’re not necessarily going to be totally honest.”
Students aren’t necessarily safer in schools because COVID-19 is a real threat, and bringing it home to the entire family would be detrimental, too, DePrekel said.
The issue is that, with online school, students are losing some of the support they had at school, she said.
“What the kids are losing is the secretary checking in and saying hello, the CIS site coordinator saying hello and making sure everything’s OK and being able to fix it immediately,” DePrekel said.
Another piece to consider is the sense of belonging that students find in their peers, said Maxine Thome, National Association of Social Workers – Michigan Chapter executive director. For example, LGBTQ students may find friendship and love from gay and lesbian support groups at school, Thome said.
“They don’t have access to that and that can be pretty devastating especially when they don’t have a supportive family,” Thome said.
Many students also are missing out on social interactions with friends, and parents are under more stress than before, Thome said.
“As stress increases, people become short-tempered,” Thome said. “When people get angry and there’s no place to go with the anger, it comes out against people in the family unit.”
The question is how to resolve what students are missing, Thome said. She recommends districts open school buildings for socially-distanced meal times so students can see friends and familiar faces among school staff, including teachers, nurses and social workers.
Students build valuable relationships with a variety of adults throughout their day at school, Bergan said.
“Anytime you’re serving young people in any way, once you have that relationship with them you know when they’re happy, you know when they’re sneaky, you know when they’re excited, you also know when they’re sad or anxious,” Bergan said.
“They’re missing out on that engagement; they’re missing out on that relationship of another caring adult that has the opportunity to advocate and intervene on behalf of the child.”
The pandemic is “exposing the systematic educational and social inequities that (students) have been enduring for too long,” DePrekel said.
Students’ needs aren’t necessarily different now than when in school, but there are more of them, DePrekel said.
“It takes more than just a book and an education — and in this case a computer and an education — to get kids to graduate,” DePrekel said.
Students not in school means that some kids are at a heightened risk of dropping out, she said.
“If there’s no one holding them accountable – parents, teachers, site coordinators – then they’ll disengage and eventually drop out of school,” DePrekel said. “So, it’s up to us to come up with incentives to keep kids engaged in classrooms.”
A benefit to the virtual learning environment, however, is that with students learning at home, staff can more easily help the entire family, DePrekel said.
“Because it’s virtual, we know the family more than ever,” she said. “So, it’s not just pulling Johnny out of class, it’s pulling Johnny out of class and realizing that Johnny has six siblings that may have been in a different school that we didn’t necessarily see.”
From March 16 through Sept. 17, CIS Michigan handed out 32,184 meals, 3,720 hygiene products like deodorant or tampons, 2,262 books and 2,366 school supplies, DePrekel said.
Her CIS staff takes the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, but they are willing to “get into the trenches” right away to make sure students are cared for while away from school, she said
“If we’re not going to show up at this point in time, when are we going to show up? We’ve had a busier summer than ever. We serve more kids than ever. It’s just been a crazy year,” DePrekel said.
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