116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic during the 2020-21 school year, Chandran Lapel — a school-based therapist for Clear Creek Amana — was seeing 34 students a week for therapy compared with about 25 students the year before.
“There were a lot of kids and families that were struggling,” she said.
There still are many “unknowns” as schools begin their third school year navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, Lapel said.
School districts across Eastern Iowa are adding counselors and mental health supports as more students return to in-person learning Monday.
“There’s been more stress and anxiety, leading to more behaviors we see at school, whether that’s acting out or internal behaviors like shutting down or withdrawing,” she said.
“We can’t just leave all the things happening and shove it away for the day when you get to school,” Lapel said. “The world has been under a lot of stress, and to have somebody students can go talk to and have that support is incredible.”
Beyond therapy, beyond school walls
School-family liaisons were added to Clear Creek Amana schools three years ago. Today, there are three school-family liaisons who split their time among the elementary, middle and high schools.
School-family liaisons are licensed therapists and have a different role than school counselors. School counselors are a “hub,” connecting them with school-family liaisons when necessary and helping students with social-emotional skills, Lapel said.
Some families may not have the health insurance or the finances or face transportation barriers to access therapy outside of school, Lapel said.
School-family liaisons also work to help connect families to outside resources such as a therapist outside the school district or food or housing assistance.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic during the 2020-21 school year, Lapel was seeing 34 students a week for therapy compared with about 25 students the year before.
Similarly, Linn-Mar Community School District is adding two licensed mental health counselors at Boulder Peak Elementary School and Linn-Mar High School.
The mental health counselors were able to be added because of funding from the U.S. Department of Education and American Rescue Plan provided to schools to help offset costs during the coronavirus pandemic.
The district also is adding partnerships with outside agencies and expanding their student assistance team.
“School counselors are tasked not only with providing social emotional support to all students, but also the support in academic and college and career readiness,” said Leisa Breitfelder, Linn-Mar executive director of student services.
“Our school counselors can’t do this alone,” Breitfelder said in an email. “We rely heavily on them to teach and coach all of our staff at Linn-Mar on how to recognize signs of mental health concerns and how to build strong relationships with students so everyone student walking through our doors feels they are in a safe and supporting environment.”
Funds boost mental health resources
The Cedar Rapids Community School District, which received $32.4 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, also is targeting a portion of the funds toward mental health resources.
The district is working with community partners such as Tanager Place and Four Oaks, which have certified mental health therapists, to increase mental health support for students.
Solon Community School District hired a College and Career Transition Coordinator with the help of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, a responsibility that previously fell on the shoulders of school counselors, Superintendent Davis Eidahl said.
This gives school counselors more time to devote to supporting the mental health of high school students, Eidhal said in an email.
Teachers also will be trained in a variety of strategies to better support students’ social-emotional mental health needs.
Solon added mental health to its strategic plan in 2018. A school-community mental health advisory committee was formed, and the district partnered with Grant Wood Area Education Agency to bring J-Fast services to Solon.
J-Fast — Juvenile and Family Assistance and Stabilization Track — connects families and students to long-term mental health support including counseling and intervention services.
The district is steadily working on its strategic plan and trained staff in trauma-informed care throughout the pandemic last year.
Since adding the school-family liaisons to Clear Creek Amana, Lapel has observed that more educators are interested in talking about mental health with their students and peers.
“There’s an openness and a willingness to learn more about it,” Lapel said.
Lapel is planning on visiting classrooms every week to engage students in 30 minutes of mindfulness — a practice of quiet reflection, methodic breathing and other strategies to relax the mind and body to reduce stress.
Lapel hopes to create an assessment for teachers and students to see how incorporating mindfulness affects academics and the classroom experience.
“Teachers have tapped in to it and share their stories about the results they’ve seen,” Lapel said.
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