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RCSD Lesson Plan for Reopening Pays Attention to Social/Emotional Health

Patti Singer

Dr. LeKeyah Wilson, top right, was among medical doctors who spoke with members of Rochester City School District administration on Dec. 10. Photo adapted from RCSD YouTube broadcast.

A week before Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small announced the plan to reopen the Rochester City School District to some in-person learning, a group of pediatricians and family medicine doctors met with district leaders to hear concerns and answer questions about COVID-19 and schoolchildren.

“From the conversations I’ve had with the school district, we’ve been able to give evidence and facts of our current situation,” said Dr. LeKeyah Wilson, medical director of Rochester Regional Health’s school-based health centers, who participated in the video conference on Dec. 10.

On Dec. 18, Myers-Small announced that elementary students would have a hybrid model, in which about one-third of students would have two days of in-person learning and have remote learning on the other days.

The option for grades K-6 was in addition to that choice that students in K-12 specialized programs had for in-person learning.

Among the evidence presented to Myers-Small, board president Van White, vice president Cynthia Elliott and other commissioners was that schools are not the source of rising infection rates. Children who contract COVID-19 are infected in the community. As of Dec. 8, data showed that 10 Monroe County school-aged children – out of a group of approximately 130,000 – had been hospitalized since the start of the pandemic.

Many questions from district leaders were about the social and emotional health of students – and staff.

In a separate conversation, Wilson said Myers-Small has built the reopening around the social and emotional well-being of students.

“Education is extremely important,” Wilson said. “Our kids are losing seat time and our districts are doing the best they can to make sure they are being educated. We also know that if a child is anxious, stressed or depressed, how much are they actually learning?”

Dr. LeKeyah Wilson. Provided photo

Wilson talked about the needs of all concerned as the phased-in reopening is scheduled to start Jan. 5.

Are the needs of students and staff different as schools start to reopen?

The needs are very similar but from a different perspective. Looking from a child’s eyes and looking from an adult’s eyes. Foremost, everyone is concerned about the medical safety of returning to school. Making sure that the children are safe. Making sure that the teachers and staff are safe and then that the families are safe when the children return from school. Making sure we’re able to address questions regarding COVID to the entire community. And then making sure that we can offer support, guidance, assistance to providing testing, screening recommendations and treatment for those who are impacted by positive COVID or exposures. Once you take care of the medical piece … there’s the social/emotional piece to all of this. All the things that have happened in the city of Rochester. When you listen to the news, there is so much going on that it’s very difficult to understand and digest from a child’s eyes, but also from an adult.

As a pediatrician, what are you hearing and seeing in regard to the social and emotional well-being of children?

With the remote learning, I know the Rochester City School District has social/ emotional check-ins every day. If there’s a concern, the school has their social workers to make sure the family is getting the services they need. These are the kids they identify. Then you worry about the children who are slipping through the cracks. In the office, when I ask families how remote learning is going, there’s a sigh. They say ‘We’re struggling.’ The kid is struggling, they’re trying to keep up. … The parents are struggling because they don’t know how much their kid is struggling. When you have multiple kids in multiple grades all doing remote at the same time, that puts stress on that parent.

How can parents tell if their child is having trouble coping?

The signs of anxiety and depression in kids present somewhat differently than adults. In children, you’re going to see irritability, temper tantrums. You’re going to think, ‘My kid is acting up because they don’t want to do schoolwork.’ That may be the case, but there might be something else going on. When you get into the further stages, they’re a little bit more withdrawn. They’re spending time in their room. They don’t want to come out. … As a parent, you have this feeling that something is off but you don’t know exactly what it is. When you don’t know exactly what it is and your kid doesn’t have the words to express what’s going on – sometimes it’s hard to put our feelings and emotion into words — who do you go to for help? Those are the kids I’m worried about.

Where does a parent go for help?

The school social worker would be the first step. Or you interact with your kid’s teachers. You say, ‘I have a concern. Have you noticed this? What resources are there for my kid?’ The next line would be the pediatrician. (For families that do not have a pediatrician, Wilson said the district has a list of pediatricians that are accepting patients.)

What could the return to in-person instruction look like for the first few days?

I think there will be a lot of anxiety on all parts. Anxiety in the kids not knowing what to expect when they walk in the door, knowing it’s going to be different from the last time they were in that building. … For the teachers, how is my classroom going to look different from last year? There’s a lot of anxiety of how is this all going to work, how is this all going to come together. It’s new for everyone. … That’s where the district will need lots of support from our behavioral health service, social work in the Rochester community. I think there are a lot of organizations that anticipate this need and are more than willing to partner with the Rochester City School District.