NEW BRITAIN – Recognizing the importance of building a firm foundation of social and emotional stability during a pandemic, New Britain educators continue to seek out creative ways to keep students and staff healthy and engaged.
“Whether the kids are in person or virtual, we encourage them to express their feelings, tell us what their concerns are, and we figure out what teachers can do to help them,” said Keith Scelia, who teaches sixth grade at Pulaski Middle School. “It took some time to get everyone involved but now they are a lot more open to it.”
Through dance parties, ice breaker games, trivia sessions and telling each other jokes, Scelia starts each class day with homeroom time, where students can begin the day with good energy.
“A lot of kids who have anxiety are now thriving because they feel included, regardless of what learning model they’re in,” he said. “They want to go to school; they show up at our extra weekend sessions that we hold just to chat. We let them know that it’s OK to be sad or feel anxious and we’re here to support them.”
Since the statewide shutdown a year ago, New Britain Schools has organized town halls, community discussions, outreach and training for social workers, teachers and staff, and including families in the conversations on how they can continue to support each other and address concerns.
Relating to the increase in anxiety cases, Donnah Swaby, district coordinator of Special Education and Pupil Services, said most of the concerns she hears about tends to be the “health and safety” piece, where families and students are afraid of being in the buildings with other people because of the pandemic.
There is no substitute for direct instruction, Swaby said. To help ensure families the school buildings are safe, the district invites them on a rolling basis to visit the schools to see the safety measures in place, the redesigned classrooms to accommodate social distancing, and how those who are in the buildings are following all sanitizing and mask-wearing protocols.
“This is a big concern for a lot of people, so we want them to see that the schools are safe when they’re considering either the hybrid or in-person model,” she said. “Especially since both at the national level and in New Britain, the transmissions within the schools are low and most cases come from the community. We hope to help them feel comfortable and overcome that anxiety caused by the pandemic.”
Brookside School Principal Jason Miramant echoed that students are not only are experiencing virtual fatigue, they are also picking up a wide range of additional challenges, including food insecurity, loss of income and childcare.
“Some of our older students are getting jobs to help their parents or helping younger siblings, so the stress is not just on the students but throughout the families,” he said.
To help with those burdens, Miramant said the schools have partnered with local food pantries to provide meals and worked with City Hall to find temporary shelter for those in need.
“It’s hard to see the positives here, but on some level, the pandemic has actually helped us strengthen our relationships with our students and their families,” Miramant said. “Ultimately, we want our students back and I think we’re inching close to that. When they do, a lot of our families will find that their relationships have strengthened with their schools because we were able to continue to support them despite the pandemic.”
Referencing to the rise in suicide rates among young people throughout the country, Mark Spalding, district director of Pupil Services said they conduct ongoing wellness checks on families who need additional help.
“Suicide prevention is a concern and we’re staying vigilant in providing support and being aware,” he said, especially for students who are wearing multiple hats while navigating their own education.
In 2020, hospital emergency rooms nationwide saw a rise in visits that were from youth for mental health needs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While researchers have yet to link the rise to the pandemic, Spalding said district social workers are staying proactive, keeping in touch with vulnerable families and creating flexible academic schedules to accommodate their needs.
The district also partnered up with several local organizations for additional support, including the Community Health Clinic and Klingberg Family Centers, where they provide direct services to students and staff. The district is also working with Community Mental Health Affiliates on a pilot program that will provide elementary school level counseling services.
Superintendent Nancy Sarra said each school faces different challenges and she can’t emphasize enough how much the teachers and staff are doing for the students and families.
“This is a chaotic time, and we do our best to balance taking care of our students and our staff,” she said. “One of the key things is to build structure and consistency. And I hope by continuing these efforts, we can provide some level of calm to help ease people’s minds.”