MVLA aims to support student mental health during closure

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Los Altos High School sits empty as schools remain closed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Now that the County of Santa Clara Public Health Department and the county’s Office of Education declared that public schools will remain closed through at least May 1, most local students will take online courses for more than a month.

As a result of the disruptions to everyday life, concerns have been raised about how they will impact students’ mental health.

For many, the school closures came as a surprise. After the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District Board of Trustees and then the county elected to close schools, operational decisions were being made “hour to hour, day to day,” according to William Blair, the district’s wellness coordinator.

“Everyone right now is still in a state of shock,” Blair said. “We’re in completely unprecedented, uncharted territory.”

The board decided March 13 to close the district’s high schools for two weeks, and the county announced a similar decision later that day (the order was extended last week). Schools shut down by day’s end, giving students little time to process what happened.

“This hit me really fast,” said Tara Sabet, a junior at Mountain View High School, of the closure that coincided with the shutdown of many universities and colleges. “I’m seeing all my friends coming home from college and they’re all just bummed out.”

Blair said the district isn’t bracing for one specific challenge students will face from the closures; rather, the focus is on addressing issues as they come up. For example, a March 23 district update from Superintendent Nellie Meyer states that the greatest need that has come up for students is housing, rather than internet use or other mental health needs. However, Blair anticipates that in the coming months there will be a greater mental health need due to ongoing isolation.

To prepare and to accommodate students who are using onsite services, MVLA worked with local organizations such as the Community Health Awareness Council and the Children’s Health Council. Like other districts in the area, MVLA will be moving service online via TeleHealth, a mental health provider. While previous restrictions would have prevented schools from working with the private health service, recent relaxations of regulations by the county have allowed for school partnerships.

Blair said he was most impressed by the ability of all the groups – schools, health providers, community organizations and more – to come together and adjust to policy changes in a short period of time.

“One of the things that’s really come out of (the) COVID-19 crisis is there’s been a lot of interagency collaboration,” he said. “It kind of brought us all together in an organized, collaborative way that we maybe haven’t had the time to do. That feels really good.”

Student reactions

Many students are worried about their academics or how closure will impact school events. While Mountain View High senior Anya McClatchie enjoys how her classes more closely resemble college courses she will be taking in the fall, she worries the lack of in-person student-teacher interaction will hinder her learning.

“I’m really stressed about being able to get everything done,” she said. “For some classes, I need a lot more support than others, and I’m worried that I’m not going to get that.”

McClatchie also expressed dismay over the prospect of cancellation of events such as prom, graduation and Advanced Placement tests. This has concerned many other students as well, including Gunn High School senior Abigail Sullivan, who spoke to the difficulty of waiting four years just for events to be canceled.

“I know that a lot of my friends are having a hard time,” Sullivan said. “A lot of them need the structure and social interaction that school provides, and their mental health is struggling as a result.”

Blair said he worries about the lack of a reflection period for students given the “tumultuous” nature of transitioning from high school to college.

“For long-term closure, I worry about the seniors graduating and the kids living day to day,” he said.

All, however, acknowledge the benefits of a short-term closure.

“It is worth it in the long run, though,” Sullivan said. “We all know that we’re helping keep our community safe and healthy, and it’s nice to be able to do our part.”

For students struggling with their mental health during this time period, UNICEF suggests recognizing that anxiety is normal, making sure to stay connected with friends and creating distractions. Additionally, Blair urged that as issues arise, students should still reach out to the school for support, even if it isn’t necessarily immediately related.

“We are here for students. Our goal is to support students and our families to the best of our capability. If we don’t have the resources on-hand, we are able to connect them,” he said. “We want students and families to see the school as still a major component in their life and major source of support.”

Adjusting to realities

The extension of the school closures shows the uncertainty over when the pandemic will subside, and Blair wondered whether schools would reopen before the end of the academic year.

Many students aware of the possibility are attempting to adjust by focusing on the “silver lining,” as Mountain View High junior Ava Hinz described it.

“Since everything is getting canceled, it’s allowing me to find more hobbies and spend more time with my family,” she said.

That is something Sabet has done as well, though she acknowledged it as a privilege.

“There’s things I can do to keep myself busy, but not everyone else has that luxury,” she said. “I also don’t have a job that I depend on, and my parents are fortunate enough to work from home, but not everyone has that opportunity.”

Sabet added that she was frustrated about not being able to help in person those who don’t have the same opportunities she has. Instead, with help from her parents and a friend, she channeled her energy into creating a list of organizations people could donate to that would give back to those most impacted by the pandemic.

“The only thing we can really do is donate,” she said.

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