As school and district personnel adapt to environments that result in substantially less time spent interacting in-person, ensuring intentional and meaningful inclusion of social emotional learning (SEL) across all aspects of operating strategies is critical to support the well-being and success of students, staff, and families. Along with physical health and well-being, schools and districts must also prioritize social emotional well-being – not at the expense of academics, but in order to create the mental, social, and emotional space for academic learning to occur.

In planning for our re-entry in September, Herkimer BOCES has formed Task force teams to examine the guidance provided by the Department of Health and NYSED for our re-entry in the Fall. Our work is grounded in our beliefs that the most equitable opportunities for educational success relies upon the comprehensive support for students and families provided in our schools with our professionals and the systems of support we have built. These supports include academics as well as the social and emotional well-being of our students. We are committed to prioritizing social emotional well-being - not at the expense of academics, but in order to create the mental, social and emotional space to access rigorous academic content with confidence. In support of this belief, a Social-Emotional Learning team was created consisting of certified teachers, certified school counselors, licensed mental health professionals, community members and school administrators. This task force team was created to develop a cohesive and strategic plan, regardless of the re-entry phase, to support students and staff upon for the 2020-2021 school year; this includes a means to identify and actively support student and staff well-being and mental health concerns through a range of pre-determined tactics to be employed by those dealing with difficult situations. This plan will focus specifically on how to best support students and staff in a blended learning model scenario, which includes a mix of both in-person and virtual classroom instruction. This plan includes considerations for teams to rapidly transition between face-to-face and continuous remote learning, which may be required based on the pandemic.

Research shows the importance of mental and emotional well-being for students and staff, which has both psychological and ultimately academic outcomes. We know, after this prolonged closure, many of our students and staff will require social-emotional support to help them re-engage and re-enter work and school. As a BOCES, our commitment is to create emotionally and physically safe, supportive and engaging learning environments promoting all students’ social and emotional well-being and development. The pandemic has elevated the role of leaders in creating conditions helping students practice empathy, create social bonds across distance and adapt to new learning experiences. Counselors, social workers, and wrap around supports will play an extremely important role in the adjustment period when buildings reopen and access to school counselors and social workers will be invaluable support to our students. Before school resumes, school administrators, teachers and mental health practitioners (school counselors, school psychologists and/or school social workers) should meet to create an asset map of already existing foundational assets within school districts and community-based organizations, and build upon them. In addition, it will be critical to determine students who might be at risk for needing mental health support. School counselors and administrators will be equipped with tools and information needed to see each child through a social emotional lens. We remain committed to supporting all students and maintain our whole child commitment as well as equipping all staff to connect, heal, and build capacity to support our students. Supports will include resources and professional development utilizing Restorative Practices, CASEL, Wellness Leadership Institute, and PBIS which are all already being implemented at Herkimer BOCES. Additionally, all Herkimer BOCES employees have access to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which offers many free services including face-to-face and virtual counseling. Information about all social-emotional supports will be made widely available to the Herkimer BOCES community through website. We are committed to developing/making accessible family/caregiver-appropriate social and emotional learning (SEL) content to be used during all phases of our re-entry.

Transitions are important every year, and they will be even more important this fall returning from continuous remote learning to in-person instruction in buildings or a phased in approach to in-person instruction. Districts should support transitions in a culturally responsive manner and engage students, families, and communities in the process of identifying needs and supports. Transitions take many forms and include returning to school in the fall, moving from one grade band to another, or dealing with the varying emotional needs as a result of the health pandemic.

The following considerations guided our building level planning:

Emotional reactions to coming out of quarantine may include

  • Mixed emotions, including relief after quarantine

  • Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones

  • Stress from the experience of monitoring yourself or being monitored by others for signs and symptoms of COVID-19

  • Sadness, anger, or frustration because friends or loved ones have unfounded fears of contracting the disease from contact with you, even though you have been determined not to be contagious

  • Guilt about not being able to perform normal work or parenting duties during quarantine

  • Other emotional or mental health changes

Addressing Social-Emotional Health

  • Establish/sustain a culture that supports and emphasizes mental health services available for faculty, staff, students and families

  • Explore the use of Restorative Practices (use of healing/restorative circles for both staff and students)

  • Assist in adequate training for staff/faculty as requested to assist them in understanding:

    • Social Emotional Learning (SEL) competencies; self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making

    • The warning signs for quarantine related mental health needs

    • How to access crisis support and other mental health services

What Mental Health Professionals can do in schools

  • Educate staff, parents, and students on symptoms of mental health needs and how to obtain assistance

  • Promote social emotional learning competency and build resilience

  • Help ensure a positive, safe school environment

  • Teach and reinforce positive behaviors and decision-making

  • Encourage good physical health

  • Help ensure access to school-based mental health supports; facilitate the expansion of school-based mental health supports