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South Shore schools stress destressing

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“You are not the only one. So many students are in your position. Reach out to us. We are professionals, and we are here to help,” Wantagh High School psychologist Agnes Ramos said when asked what she tells students who acknowledge that they need help coping with the anxieties of social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Though clearly important before the shutdown, school psychologists are critical in helping students deal with the isolation from friends and activities that the school closures have created.

“We’ve created a website  —https://sites.google.com/wantaghschools.org/address-your-stress/home — for all students and their families as a general baseline support,” said Jeanne Love, the Wantagh district’s director of pupil personnel services.

Love said her department initially reached out to students it worked with when distance learning was first established. “But we also have students who just need support,” she said, “just students having a hard time with anxiety, or possibly have family members that are sick.”

“Every Friday, we review students, and say ‘OK, maybe there’s a parent, a single-parent family and a parent who is working, so they’re having trouble getting meals,’” Love added, “so beyond mental health, do they have the support they need? Anything they need, we get it to them. Things like that, beyond the mental health, [also] impact mental health.”

Ramos, a 14-year veteran of the district’s psychology office, said that the pandemic is the most challenging time she has seen — not just for her, but for teachers and students as well. The fear of contracting or spreading the virus, as well as a lack of social engagement, she said, is becoming a “new normal” for students.

She added that she and her colleagues are not used to offering therapy and counseling by way of Zoom, so she must adapt along with the students she works with. “Luckily for our students,” Ramos said, “they have been in the classroom most of the year, and have developed and established relationships.”

Love said that students and their families have a constant open line of communication with the department through Google Classroom, where they can leave messages and chat back and forth.

Less than two miles to the east, Seaford School District’s pupil personnel services team is working just as hard. Director Mary Catherine Culella-Sun heads a 68-person department that includes special education teachers, psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors, behavioral consultants and two administrators. “We’re using everything at our disposal to help with not just our student body, but their families and our community as well,” Culella-Sun said.

“We have meetings with kids every week, and are learning to cope with this new world,” said Dr. Alvin Pitkow, one of Seaford’s school psychologists. “Students have access to us via multiple platforms, including Zoom, email and FaceTime, and we see a lot of kids routinely and weekly. Since this has all occurred, it has been more of a challenge. We want to create a sense of hope, stability and a sense of certainty, even though we’re living in an uncertain world.”

Culella-Sun said that the learning curve was steep for her department, because it has been “navigating waters that have yet to be navigated.” Even issues the department is used to dealing with, she said, such as bereavement, isolation, mental health, disabilities and substance abuse, can be amplified by this new normal.

“We have some great special education teachers that reach out to our students and ask them, ‘When are you waking up? Eating lunch? Turning your computer off in the afternoon?’ said high school guidance counselor Joanna Scordo. “They’re doing their best to keep our students on a regular schedule at home.”

Pitkow agreed that it is important for students to build healthy routines, since they’re used to a very structured schedule during the school year.

Counselors in both districts said they fear how the time at home will affect students with anxiety when they return to school. Culella-Sun said extreme levels of anxiety brought on by isolation and social distancing can be crippling. “We’re talking about, how we can support these students? I think we’re up to the challenge. We may have to start back from square one, but we want the families to know that we will be there for their children.”

Pitkow said he, too, was worried about those students’ return to the school buildings, but added that the district would come up with individualized plans for them.