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By Rick Monroe
Special to the Village News 

Anxiety identified as main issue of students in post-virtual education


Last updated 6/9/2021 at 11:27am

Counselors and school administrators, as well as parents, agree it’s been a rough year for school children. The isolation brought by schools reverting to online learning with COVID-19 restrictions has kept students safe from the pandemic, but there are also scars.

“The issue is real,” said Leonard Rodriquez, director of Pupil Personnel Services for the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District. “We understand the consequences the pandemic brought and are working to relieve any emotional trauma.”

“We’ve been proactive,” Rodriquez added. “Under the direction of Superintendent (Candace) Singh and the school board, we doubled our number of counselors at the elementary schools from four to eight, so now there’s one at each site.”

Rodriquez added that the additional counselors will be retained for the next school year, and also for summer school.

A counselor at a Fallbrook elementary school and a therapist at Palomar Family Counseling Services in Fallbrook were also individually interviewed for this story.

The common thread is that anxiety seems to be an issue with younger children who were unable to cope well with isolation.

Rodriquez said that last fall, the school district contracted with Panorama Education to survey the social, emotion and learning needs of students. Panorama asked about the social skills, connection to staff, and ability to persevere during hard times, he said.

Students in the elementary school district, which includes Potter Jr. High School, were among the first in the county to return to classrooms instead of virtual learning. The students returned to a hybrid format of both online and in-class instruction on Oct. 5. Since then, in a phased process, students are now in the classroom full-time.

“It’s been a very challenging year in being creative with planning and for thinking about what kids and staff need,” Rodriquez said. “Our teachers and counselors are on the front line. They need support and training. All the counselors are certificated, and their work is directed by the American School Counselors Association.

“School counselors are not therapists,” Hernandez said, “and most of their work is in classroom presentations.”

“Our purpose is to provide support to allow all students to perform at optimum,” he said. “Schools should always be a safe place and resource.”

He said the focus is on academic needs, which include social and emotional, as well as behavior issues, and college/career direction.

He called this Tier One services. Counselors make referrals for Tier Two, which includes group discussions. Tier Three is individual counseling.

Referrals are based on data through observation, grades, attendance, and surveys.

Zorayda Hernandez, a bilingual school counselor at Fallbrook STEM Academy, said much of her work is done in the classroom or Zoom meetings.

Tier One counseling includes presenting a virtual program twice a month at elementary schools.

“The program gives examples of identifying feelings and being proactive learners,” she said. “It includes putting first things first and time management and coping strategies such as journaling and deep breathing.”

The lessons also enforce the district’s “Leader in Me” initiative.

“Students did struggle with virtual education,” she said. “When in-person learning returned, most were very excited and did well. There were presentations to prepare students to return to campus.”

The counselors work closely with staff and community programs. They also collaborate and consult with district psychiatrists as needed.

She said school counselors are not therapists. If a therapist is needed, short-term counseling is available for 4-6 weeks in Tier Two, which includes small group sessions and developing social and emotional skills.

The outside agency the district uses is Palomar Family Counseling Services in Fallbrook, which has a contract with the school district. It also receives funding from the Fallbrook Regional Health District through its Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds program.

“It’s been a tough year for kids,” said Elizabeth Nua, MFT, a program manager at PFCS. “We’ve focused on their emotional needs. We’re here to support the students, and a big part of that is connecting with students.”

She said anxiety is the number one problem younger school children are experiencing.

“Historically, children bounce back from adversity, but things are different this year because it affected the whole system,” she noted. “I think children will catch up academically, and that’s something we try to assure parents.

“What kids need most is for things to normalize in their families. Parents need to try their best – it will get better – and work at creating positive experiences.”

Children pick up on the way their parents are feeling, whether about education or other concerns, if parents lack coping skills. The big thing is to calm down things, she said.

“We recommend getting back to old traditions,” Nua said, “from family game nights, general conversations, puzzles, trips to the park or hikes – anything to get away from the computer. It’s time to engage with real people in the real world. It’s back to the basics.”

With a game night or even picking up a child from school or at dinner, she said that’s a great time to connect with a child’s feelings. “Don’t ask, ‘How was your day?’ but instead, ‘What did they like best or like worst today?’ They need to know it’s OK to talk, and not hide. They need a safe place.”

Nua has worked with more students, especially older ones, about having fears, nightmares, and thoughts of harming themselves.

“We take these concerns of children seriously,” she stressed. “We’ve also been seeing a lot of elementary age students with anxiety and fear of being on camera, academic problems, and fear of being judged by peers and ‘not being good enough.’ Then, when they return to classes, they’re anxious about seeing their friends and if they will still be liked.”

There is success in the group programs, as well as individual sessions at the center, she said.

“Fallbrook has a great community support system and groups meeting to discuss common goals,” Nua said. For example, she credited the Boys and Girls Club as having great programs for youth.

She also cited the Community Collaborative for Health and Wellness that meets monthly to discuss issues. It’s also sponsored by the Fallbrook Regional Health District.


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