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Lee County School District’s mental health staff help students reintegrate as schools reopen

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Cary Barbor, WGCU
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Students of Tice Elementary School returned to the classroom for the first time, Oct. 17 since Hurricane Ian. Tice is among the first schools in the Lee County School District to welcome students back to class. Lee District schools are reopening after Ian, this week, on a staggered schedule.

The Lee County School District's entire mental health services team has been training and preparing for students who experienced the impacts of Hurricane Ian as their schools reopened this week on a staggered schedule.

“This is a team made up of school counselors, social workers, school psychologists, licensed mental health professionals and school nurses,” said Director of School Counseling and Mental Health Services, Lori Brooks, M.Ed., Ed.S.

“It’s a highly trained masters-level-and-above integrated team to serve mental health needs of students. So, when something like Hurricane Ian occurs, our training doesn’t start at the basic mental health level," she said. "It’s more about crisis response and making sure that we are ready to have a healthy return to school for adults and for our students and so that starts with really ‘How do we welcome them back?’”

Mental health services staff with the school district use an evidence-based crisis response model that employs various interventions based on the type of incident. The goals and initiatives of this response are essentially the same across all grade levels, but Brooks said techniques will vary across elementary, middle and high schools based on students’ developmental level.

She emphasized the importance of schools having integrated mental health response teams. “I’ll give you an example: The school nurse may have students coming into the clinic in the upcoming weeks with somatic symptoms. That nurse is trained to look deeper,” said Brooks.

“So, when you look at a student coming in with a nauseous stomach and headaches. Are you really seeing somatic symptoms that might be the stomach virus, or are you seeing, when you really look through that, potential anxiety and engaging in deeper discussion?”

The mental health response can begin with teacher-led “classroom meetings” to re-establish a sense of safety and to give students a chance to ask questions.

“It’s a way that when their students come in the class, they (teachers) can get a sense of where they (students) are that day emotionally, how their day is going, and they can move through that brief classroom meeting and then into the coursework,” said Brooks.

“It also gives teachers the opportunity, because they are our eyes and ears, to really check in on students and notice which ones may be struggling so that we can get them referred for additional support.”

Brooks says mental health funding funneled by the Florida legislature through the state Department of Education in response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in 2018, allows the district’s mental health response to be more robust than it was after previous disasters such as Hurricane Irma in 2017.

She said the staggered reopening schedule also allows them to concentrate more mental health resources on individual schools as they resume classes “because we can push more mental health professionals into those schools and then they roll back to their own schools as those schools open.”

Brooks said the school district is also working to support staff impacted by Ian’s catastrophic damage. “For our employees we had a hurricane support event this past week… with FEMA and United Way and many other agencies here at the school board building so our employees could access resources and try to get back on their feet.”

Other community partners in the Lee School District’s response have included SalusCare, Valerie’s House, Catholic Charities, and the “Kids' Minds Matter” initiative through Lee Health.

Click here for a detailed school reopening schedule of Lee County schools. For a broader conversation with Lori Brooks about the Lee County School District’s mental health response following Hurricane Ian, tune into WGCU-FM’s “Gulf Coast Life” Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 2 p.m. or at 7 p.m.

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