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Stress, studies and the pandemic: a steep learning curve

Experts offer advice on students weathering this school year

Rockford ー In response to the social and emotional impacts brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Rockford’s Developing Healthy Kids initiative wants students and families to know they are not alone.

Rockford Public Schools recently hosted a live, online panel of 10 local experts on student mental health resources offered by the district, Children’s Advocacy Center of Kent County, the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan and the Kent County Health Department. The event was organized by Developing Healthy Kids, a community and district cooperative to support student mental health. 

Supporting Students Under Stress 
Rockford Public Schools recently hosted a program on handling stress and anxiety during the pandemic. A panel of health and education experts offered advice on self-care, resources for parents, the pandemic’s long-term impact on student mental health and other issues. You can view the presentations here:
For families of secondary students
For families of elementary students

Mindy Duba, Rockford Public Schools executive director of special services

While impacting all kinds of people, the pandemic has significantly altered the traditional model of education. Students are learning virtually from home or in their usual classroom, as socially distanced as possible and, for elementary students, confined to smaller cohorts. Rockford’s program addressed how major changes to instruction, social isolation and periodic school closings significantly impact the social and emotional well-being of students. 

Panelist Mindy Duba, RPS executive director of special services, explained how the district has navigated the current school year and the importance of understanding and prioritizing the needs of students. 

“Back in March when COVID-19 first hit, we had to quickly adapt and react to a different way of living and this has affected all of us in a lot of different ways,” Duba said at the Nov. 19 forum. “What we do know is opening our doors this fall was a positive and rewarding experience for our families and students. But it also showed us the large impact it’s had on various populations of students.” 

Superintendent Michael Shibler also expressed his gratitude for the Rockford community, and for the panelists’ providing insight, information and encouragement for students and families navigating the emotional stress and anxiety of an unprecedented health crisis.

“We developed this program to help parents and students cope with and transcend the difficulties and challenges we are all facing because of this pandemic,” Shibler said. 

Pandemic Compounds Growing Pains 

Separated into two videos, for elementary and secondary students, the presentations discussed various challenges students face while navigating quarantine, social distancing and isolation — all while experiencing the emotionally heavy load of growing up.

Panelists said students of different age groups have been impacted by the changes in education in different ways. 

‘What we do know is opening our doors this fall was a positive and rewarding experience for our families and students. But it also showed us the large impact it’s had on various populations of students.’

— Mindy Duba, Rockford special services director

According to Duba, elementary students come to school and learn to navigate the world, build relationships, problem-solve and resolve conflicts. For older students, it’s important to learn good study habits and discover their strengths and weaknesses alongside their parents, said high school guidance counselor Holly Normington 

“Help your student change their thinking about what kind of student they are, without comparing them to others,” Normington said. “We all have strengths and weaknesses, so use your strengths to overcome some of your weaknesses and get comfortable with what some of your weaknesses are.”

Heather Slater, Rockford Public Schools psychologist

The most common goals for parents and students are wellness and safety, panelists agreed. 

“If you are in a situation where you do not have access to adequate food or housing, this can have a serious impact on the emotional health of you and your child,” RPS psychologist Heather Slater said. “If this is the case, immediately seek help and reach out to us or other community agencies. Do not try to go it alone.” 

Thoughts on Mental Health, Learning and COVID  

Following are excerpts from the forum’s elementary and secondary school presentations, in response to questions submitted in advance by the community and parents. 

Samantha Akerman, clinical supervisor and therapist for the Children’s Advocacy Center

How important is self-care, and what tips do you have for parents and community members to care for students?

“It’s really thinking about what we can do to support elementary students, because they don’t always understand what is going on with the pandemic. In reality, self-care can look like sticking to routine and taking care of yourself, while schedules constantly change. Children thrive with structure and stability and they create a sense of safety.” – Samantha Akerman, Children’s Advocacy Center of Kent County

“As a parent, if you feel your child is in crisis or are concerned with their well-being, call 911 if it’s critical. If it’s not critical, mental health resources are available at the DeVos Children’s Hospital ER, and Network180 can help if you don’t have insurance or if your insurance doesn’t support mental health services.” – David Jangda, RPS mental health liaison

After testing positive for COVID-19 and isolating appropriately, is it true we are immune and no longer need to be quarantined until after 90 days from the onset of symptoms?

“When a person tests positive, then they need to isolate for at least 10 days while infectious. When they’ve completed their isolation period and their symptoms are getting better, they can return to normal activities. The body responds by creating antibodies and is immune for 90 days, so you do not have to quarantine a second time if exposed.

“Parents, keep in mind that if (your) children are positive, they could pass it along to older family members, so keep kids in your own family units for the holidays.” – Joann Hoganson, MSN, RN, Kent County Health Department

Christy Buck, executive director of the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan

Is there a long-term impact on students’ overall health and well-being from COVID-19?

“If we talk about stress and anxiety during the pandemic and learn to recognize when someone is struggling, there won’t necessarily be long-term effects. … .Anxiety is a normal stressor response right now, and monitoring how students are thinking, acting and feeling over a period of two weeks or more can help parents recognize if they are in a crisis situation.” – Christy Buck, Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan executive director 

How have technology and increased screen time impacted learning in a good or a bad way?

“There are different types of screen time. Do not consider online instruction or even social interaction as passive screen time. It’s not going to have a negative impact on their development. What is negative and harmful is when they’re passively looking at a screen when they’re not actively engaged because that encourages social isolation.” – Kate Miller, RPS secondary school social worker 

What are some strategies to relieve stress and anxiety? 

“Mindfulness is learning to slow our thoughts down and learning to relax the body and mind. It’s inexpensive, practical and takes practice but it’s something that helps us learn to change self judgment to self compassion. The Grand Rapids Center for Mindfulness does a variety of things for students and parents. There are also apps for mindfulness and emotional management. I use Stop, Breathe,Think with my students.” – Holly Normington, Rockford High School guidance counselor

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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