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Local schools, universities prioritize mental health of students and staff during pandemic

Published: Jul. 29, 2020 at 10:16 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - As students get ready for school, whether it be online or in-person, local school and university leaders say the mental health of those students is a top priority.

While it is difficult to gauge what the mental health needs of students will be now, Dr. David Onestak, the Director of the Counseling Center at James Madison University, said their staff of counselors is prepared.

Dr. Onestak said every year the Counseling Center sees about a five to 10 percent increase in student services, and last fall, three new staff members were added, so he said he believes they could handle an influx in services if needed.

“What we’re trying to do is plan comprehensively and then be ready to pivot and flexibly adapt what we offer based upon what’s actually happening when students actually arrive on campus,” Dr. Onestak said.

Dr. Onestak said most counseling sessions will be held virtually, but they can reevaluate on a case-to-case basis if in-person were necessary.

He said the university also plans to offer services for students who may not be able to physically be on campus because of health reasons.

“We’re also looking at a [virtual] support group for students who might be immunocompromised,” Dr. Onestak said. “These students might not even be in Harrisonburg, they might be somewhere else in Virginia and they didn’t come back because of the health concerns.”

Harrisonburg City Public Schools made the decision for most students to learn remotely for the first semester.

Superintendent Dr. Michael Richards said HCPS is not only focused on the mental health of city students but also teachers, staff and families.

When schools went into “crisis mode” in March, Dr. Richards said HCPS staff and teachers got creative with how they can be there for students at home.

He said a “virtual relaxation room” was created for students and staff, and staff received additional support from mental health professionals.

“[Teachers] had ongoing, weekly teacher support groups that were facilitated by mental health counselors,” Dr. Richards said. “Also, our school counselors provided outreach to students and families.”

After having more time to plan and coordinate, additional resources for students and staff have been added.

“We’ll have a lot of professional development in place. Some of that will be on mental health awareness, especially in virtual settings, some of that will be on mental health hygiene, or what’s called self-care,” Dr. Richards said. “A lot of that will be on building community and re-engaging students.”

Dr. Richards said they will also give students the option of meeting virtually or in-person with school counselors during the fall semester.

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