Fort Wayne Community Schools' middle and high school cafeterias were understandably quiet last academic year – not as many students filled the chairs.
Along with students opting for virtual-only classes, daily in-person attendance was further reduced at the schools because they operated on a hybrid schedule, meaning some youth learned from home each day.
Although FWCS dropped the blended model this school year, cafeterias aren't the same social hubs they were before the pandemic, said Liz Bryan, director of well-being and alternative programs. Students are confined to assigned seats for contact tracing purposes, and they are learning to reengage with peers.
“Lunchrooms are still quiet,” Bryan said last week.
Experts say social connectedness is important to mental health, which is a main priority in the U.S. Department of Education's 2021-22 guide for K-12 schools.
“To create a strong foundation for students' academic success we must prioritize their social, emotional and mental health,” the Return to School Roadmap said.
The challenges children, teens and young adults have faced during the pandemic include changes in routine, disruption of education, missed significant life events and lost security and safety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Beyond getting sick, many young people's social, emotional, and mental well-being has been impacted by the pandemic,” the CDC said. “Trauma faced at this developmental stage can continue to affect them across their lifespan.”
Preventing a crisis
Purdue University Fort Wayne offers a breadth of services – including training, screenings and interventions. Those services are funded through the university's grant-supported mental health wellness program, Being Well: The Mental Health Readiness Project, which also serves the IU Fort Wayne community.
Mary Ross, the project director and licensed clinical social worker, recently began attending orientations to ensure new students know where to seek help, should they need it.
The packets she gives students includes information about Bowen Center, the student counseling provider, and the PFW Community Counseling Center. The packets also include writing and tutoring services; tips to manage fears and anxiety around the coronavirus; coping strategies for stress and anxiety; ways to improve sleep; and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Ross assures students she doesn't include the latter to scare them, she said, but so they can help someone struggling.
“More interventions happen peer to peer than any other way,” Ross said. “If you don't know the warning signs, you can't help.”
Early in the pandemic, overwhelming feelings of grief and loss were common among college students, who faced social and academic challenges, Ross said. Students also were forced to return home, which included rural areas with spotty internet access and communities less accepting of individuals identifying as LGBTQ.
The university's fall programming guide was developed with Being Well, Ross said. Activities included an hourlong session last week about suicide prevention and a Zoom session Monday for students with families.
Pop-up mental health tables also are placed in strategic campus locations, such as at the food pantry, and are open to all faculty, staff and students.
“The point is to engage individuals before it escalates to the level of a crisis,” Ross said.
The fall activity booklet includes a note from Krissy Creager, a vice chancellor. She encourages students to take advantage of the resources the university offers.
“We all need someone to lean on and a bit of support throughout college – I know I did,” Creager wrote. “But we can't read minds. If you are struggling with something, don't know where to turn to for help, or just want to talk to someone about what you are feeling, our team is here to support you through it all.”
A nationwide survey conducted in July suggests many middle and high school students returned to classrooms this academic year with anxiety.
Of the 3,350 students polled, 65% reported feeling anxious about returning to school in the fall, according to Brainly, an online learning platform.
When asked what they least looked forward to, 16.4% of students said being around groups of people.
Bryan, the director of well-being programs at FWCS, understands that concern, especially among students who avoided crowded places during the pandemic. With enrollment at each FWCS high school ranging from about 1,400 to 2,000 students, she said “that could be school for a lot of kids.”
FWCS included mental health in its 2021-22 plan, which states students and staff will participate in monthly lessons focused on self-awareness and well-being.
Guidance counselors are overwhelmed with students wanting to talk, Bryan said.
Students can and have been referred to Bowen Center, which can provide them with coping strategies, Bryan said. She noted FWCS students get three free sessions.
As for the quiet lunchrooms, that could change soon with new seating charts, Bryan said, noting students will have the opportunity to select their assigned seat.
Returning to the traditional in-person format at the middle and high schools has helped students, who didn't necessarily go to school on the same days as their friends under the blended model, Bryan said.
About one-third of the students polled by Brainly said they most looked forward to seeing friends in the current academic year.
Last year, Bryan said, FWCS students spoke about feeling isolated.
“They talked about the loneliness,” she said.