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New structure created to benefit student health

New director of behavioral health and social emotional learning will work with director of school health services to care for ‘the whole child’

Grand Rapids—To sit in a conference room with Jamal Fisher and Kim Baron and watch them interact is to witness two people who have a mutual respect for each other and a deep love for the students entrusted to their care.

And this year, as GRPS returns to fully in-person instruction after a year of learning virtually, their working relationship and their care for students will be more important than ever.

Fisher is the new director of behavioral health & social emotional learning for the district, a position that did not exist prior to this year but was created when GRPS split behavioral and social-emotional learning from physical health and put Fisher, a licensed social worker in his third year with the district, in charge of those areas.

Baron, 20 years a nurse and in her seventh year with GRPS, is the director of school health services and oversees 20 RNs and 34 unlicensed health aides who are employed by Spectrum Health.

Baron and Fisher said that as the 2021-22 school year begins their new structure will work both to their benefit and to the benefit of their students.

“We will work closely together,” Fisher said. “Our teams already are doing a lot of professional development together. But splitting things also will provide some possibilities we didn’t have before. For example, we can do some specific training in the areas of behavioral health for just the people on my team, and Kim could be doing the same with her team on the physical health side of things.”

Much Work as COVID Continues

Baron agreed.

“I think that is one really important piece of the change,” she said. “I’m a registered nurse, and so I oversee the registered nurses and that’s important for quality and for ongoing development of employees for them, to have supervision by someone who is qualified to supervise them and is their same licensure. Jamal is a licensed social worker himself, so that brings the same things to his work and the people he supervises, and in the long run our students are better off.”

Fisher added that the district’s registered nurses and licensed social workers also identify issues for each other in areas that overlap, and that each side’s focus on the whole child will continue to be an emphasis. 

“Oftentimes, in the course of therapy, we uncover some physical health symptoms and vice versa: a nurse might be working with a student and realize, ‘Oh, this might not be physical pain; it sounds like a little bit more is going on.’ Having that reciprocal relationship will allow us to do a better job treating the whole child and that’s our goal.”

Both Fisher and Baron said that as the COVID pandemic continues, each of their roles and each of their teams is likely to continue to have lots of work to do.

“We’re grateful to have more resources,” Baron said. “School nurses across the country are fielding a lot of mental health concerns, and while school nurses are highly qualified people, we’re not trained therapists. So we’re grateful to have a growing team of therapists in the district.”

Rhonda Kribs, director of financial services for Grand Rapids Public Schools, said school districts during the pandemic have received an influx of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, or ESSER funds. The district, she said, is using ESSER funds for everything from Fisher’s new position to additional mental health therapists and social workers. The hope long-term is to sustain with ongoing grant funding any new positions added and funded with COVID monies.

Re-learning How to Play with Peers

Fisher added that returning to classrooms after more than a year of virtual learning will create its own set of challenges.

“How do you re-integrate yourself is a big concern,” he said. “You haven’t played with your peers on the playground, you haven’t sat down and had lunch in a room with 75 people and you haven’t been in a classroom where you had to focus, because last year you just turned on your computer and did your schoolwork. That adjustment is going to be the big part of things. 

“And I think there will likely be some natural anxieties around being in the space. Our students have been in their own homes, and that’s a safe place for a lot of people. However, school was also a safe place for a lot of students. And so I believe there are many students who also have comfort in being back in the school and having their teachers and support staff and everyone to wrap around them. Because that also was something that was missing while they were at home.”

“Oftentimes, in the course of therapy, we uncover some physical health symptoms and vice versa: a nurse might be working with a student and realize, ‘Oh, this might not be physical pain; it sounds like a little bit more is going on.’ Having that reciprocal relationship will allow us to do a better job treating the whole child, and that’s our goal.”

– Jamal Fisher

Fisher said that to start the year, his staff will try to help students be able to make a seamless transition from home to school and school to home. 

“That might sound simple to some people, but that can be a really, really hard thing,” he said. “If we’re running a group (at school), we might have intentional time where we’re quiet, and we might have time where we share. And then we might encourage family units to try some of these things at home. Because oftentimes group dynamics, regardless of being your family or your peers or your colleagues, many of the same things work. So, what we’re trying to teach is transferable skills.”

Catching Up On Vaccines and Well-Child Visits

For Baron and her team, the start of a new school year continues to include a big focus on COVID-19, including partnering with the health department, dealing with quarantine periods, doing contact tracing and more. But COVID creates other challenges too as students return to district classrooms.

“From the physical health standpoint, we know that a lot of children over the last year-and-a-half have not gone in for things like their regular well-child visits or their regular vaccinations,” Baron noted. “So we already partnered with the health department to offer two dates they set aside specifically for Grand Rapids Public Schools, where students could come in by appointment and get all caught up on their vaccines.”

Beyond that, she said, the first few weeks of a new school year for her physical health team includes lots of time identifying students who have chronic health conditions (asthma, diabetes, seizures, food allergies and more), putting together care plans, making sure that everybody who’s in the school who interacts with that child knows what to watch for that might constitute an emergency, and setting students up for success to make sure that they can stay in school and learn with their peers, regardless of their health condition.

“A lot of our families in a lot of our schools do heavily rely on the nurse to do some case management, to connect the families if they need help finding a physician’s office, to collaborate,” she said. “Our nurses are definitely filling a resource and education void.”

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio


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