The majority of people living within the boundaries of Abilene USD 435 want students to be attending school in person and not online.

That was the main lesson learned from a school shutdown that started in mid-September when several staff and students tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, resulting in a large number of people being quarantined.

“Throughout this online (learning) I’ve heard over and over — and I’m guessing most of our board has too — our patrons want our kids in school. They need our kids in school. From the workplace standpoint of our patrons, they (students) have to go to school,” said Abilene Board of Education President Kyle Becker.

“If the elderly are most at risk, we have elderly who are watching our kids right now,” he continued, adding that if the answer to keeping students in school is keeping them six feet apart then administrators need to be creative and find ways to make that happen “because that’s really what our patrons are begging for.”

Becker made his comments during the board’s regular meeting Monday night when discussion regarding the novel coronavirus and the resulting school shut-down in late September/early October took up much of the meeting.

Abilene elementary and middle school students were able to return to the class-room Oct. 5, following a two-week shutdown, while the majority of Abilene High School students returned to the building this past Tuesday.

 

Mental health impacted

Besides the need expressed by parents and patrons to have students in school, board members noted the isolation and changes to routine are having an adverse impact on students’ mental and social/emotional health.

Board Member Veronica Murray said she had seen a television news story which reported on the large numbers of people currently using mental health services that stated the state’s mental hospitals are at capacity.

“It’s really up to the communities, was their recommendation, to do some of that preventative work to help out the state hospitals,” Murray said.

Further complicating the situation, capacity at mental health facilities is down be-cause rooms cannot be shared because of social distancing and also because staff may not be available because of the virus.

“We’ve said it over and over. I think some preventive care at the schools makes a ton of sense. I know it’s something we’ve always worked on,” Murray continued. “The counselors are great, but some extra attention would be nice. When we’re not seeing the kids everyday we don’t know what’s going on at home and there’s not as many opportunities to notice.”

Board Member Jennifer Waite commented that one of the Abilene High School counselors had contacted her student and asked how he was doing with remote learning as part of a survey.

Waite asked if data and information regarding students’ mental health and other impacts of remote learning was being shared with the county health department and county commissioners.

She realizes the county health department’s biggest concern is “physical health,” especially during this time of COVID-19; however, they need to be informed of the other ramifications.

“Have they (counselors) given that information to you guys (administrators) re-garding their mental health? And if they have, can we pass that on to our county commissioners and county health director?” Waite asked.

“Have we shown their mental health, their emotional health, the decline of their grades?” she added.

Earlier in the meeting, board members heard a report from Assistant Superinten-dent Dana Sprinkle regarding assessment tests that showed declines since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March.

Sprinkle said administrators have talked about mental health and the social emo-tional pieces on a regular basis and it was a “priority area.”

But other than those discussions among administrators, Superintendent Greg Brown said he did not believe the information had been shared.

“I would be curious to know. We don’t know how many of our students really are struggling. And it is a struggle,” Waite said, explaining that once her student was able to see some friends he was an “entirely different kid” because he had some interaction and was not remaining in the house staring at a computer screen for eight hours.

Brown agreed the isolation caused by remote learning and the resulting changes in how society works has been difficult on kids and adults. Rather than attending face-to-face meetings, most adults now have to conduct most of their business via Zoom or other virtual means.

“There’s a lot to be said for the social interaction between people. We’re social creatures. It’s really sucking the life out of kids and adults alike,” Brown said.

Becker said he believes it’s important that mental health and social/emotional impacts be shared with county health and other leaders. He commented on several student suicides which have occurred in the greater Wichita area since the COVID crisis.

“I know how hard that is. We’ve dealt with that firsthand in Abilene through the years,” Becker said. “We don’t want to put our students in that situation.”

 Contact Kathy Hageman at reporter@abilene-rc.com

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