PETERBOROUGH — Many of the student mental-health initiatives in the ConVal reopening discussion are things school counselors have wanted to implement all along, but the school needs strong community partnerships in order for them to succeed, said Director of Student Services Cari Christian-Coates.

ConVal school counselors are preparing for any student mental-health scenario as the fall semester approaches. The school is in the process of hiring extra counseling and nursing staff to anticipate the increase in need during the fall semester. And the wellness reopening committee’s tasks are just accelerating the school’s long term goals of improving student mental health and school climate, centered around partnerships with community organizations.

Returning to school under a drastically different format could be traumatic to some students, Christian-Coates said, and others may have struggled with isolation or neglect during the past four months, or had other needs not reflected in responses to school surveys. “We’re preparing ourselves for whatever comes to us,” she said, by observing the students in the fall and continuing to build relationship-centered practices in the classroom, as well as supportive classroom environments. “If that’s set up, then we can support whatever is presented to us.”

The COVID-19 crisis has increased the urgency for mental health and school climate improvement initiatives ConVal was already working on, Christian-Coates said. For example, elementary schools in the district have been emphasizing social emotional learning, or SEL, for a couple of years now. At its core, SEL is all about helping students to self-regulate, she said, which pays dividends towards a more positive classroom environment, stronger connection between adults and students and better overall student well-being, with potential to reduce rates of bullying, dropouts and suicide.

What does SEL look like in the classroom? Elementary school teachers have been trained to engage students in a judgment-free way to encourage them to share whatever they’re comfortable with, establishing group check-ins to start and end the day, Christian-Coates said. Classrooms can implement “regulation stations,” places where overstimulated students can decompress without becoming disruptive or leaving the classroom.

Current elementary school students will continue age-appropriate SEL activities as they move to middle and high school, she said, with hopes the programming will soon be consistently implemented throughout the district. Meanwhile, Christian-Coates said she’s hoping that last year’s high school student initiative for improved school climate and culture continues under the new principal.

At the end of June, the school board passed a suicide-prevention policy to comply with SB 282. The bill requires lots of measures ConVal was already taking and additionally mandates that school districts provide two hours of suicide-prevention training to all staff members annually, Christian-Coates said. This training will be in addition to the youth mental health first aid training staff have been receiving for the last several years, which teaches how to identify signs that a student is being bullied or feeling suicidal, or if they need therapy. It’s information that’s second nature to school counselors but can be really eye opening for teachers, Christian-Coates said.

The accelerated improvements in mental-health measures also underscore the district’s needs for community partnerships, Christian-Coates said. “It’s something that’s really important, but it’s also an unfunded mandate that comes from the state legislation,” she said of the new suicide-prevention policy. “We have to train all of our staff, but there’s no funding to do it. We’re really trying to say yes, but we need to partner with other organizations … People always ask what the school is doing about this. Here’s what we’re doing; tell us what you’re doing.”

The pandemic has deepened some existing community partnerships out of necessity, Christian-Coates said. ConVal is one of the biggest sources of referrals for social services in the region, and the school district had already been collaborating with the Grapevine Family Resource Center and The River Center during the last year, Christian-Coates said, and had been in talks about extending the River Center’s home-visiting program to fill gaps in the school’s own home-visiting protocol. Other reopening committees are made up of essential partners, including select-board members, firefighters, police, and hospital representatives, she said. “It’s just better for everybody if we are all working together,” she said.

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