Island schools support student mental health during COVID

Social and emotional services available to help kids inside and outside the classroom.

MVRHS senior Aiden Rogers meets with guidance counselor Sean Mulvey to chat and go over his class schedule.

Aiden Rogers, a senior at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, told The Times that the support he received from the school guidance department put him on a positive track to excel in his academics and continue in his basketball career after a rough start to the year. “Believe it or not, without guidance I probably wouldn’t be here in school today,” Aiden said. 

At the beginning of the school year, Aiden underwent ankle surgery, and was in a lot of pain and struggled to attend his Zoom classes regularly. He was also dissuaded from attending because he thought that the basketball season would be canceled due to COVID. 

“I thought at the time basketball was a no-go, and I’ve really only had one parent in my life, so I was just thinking of it like, if I was to get COVID, my mom would be affected really bad,” Aiden said. “I just kind of gave up on school for the year at first, but Mr. Light [Assistant Principal Jeremy Light] kept bugging me about coming in, and he told me that the basketball team was going to have a season — so I really just got everything together, and got eligible to play.”

Aiden is not alone. He’s one of a number of students at MVRHS who have struggled with the lingering effects of the pandemic. School officials tell The Times they’re doing everything they can to support students, not only with their academics, but with the immense social and emotional challenges that come with the pandemic.

According to Aiden, the guidance department and school administration aren’t there just to support students through their academic careers, “they really care outside of school, too.”

When Aiden was encouraged to improve his grades and become eligible for basketball, he said, his entire outlook changed.

Maintaining a rapport with his coaches and advocates at the high school, Aiden said, has helped him inside and outside the classroom, and having a compassionate adult to speak with has eased many of his concerns during the pandemic.

According to Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) adjustment counselor Amy Lilavois, disengagement and isolation are the enemies of success and forward momentum in both academic and social settings.

For counselors around the Island, engaging students who don’t already have a rapport with members of guidance or teaching staff can be a major challenge.

When incoming freshmen are working on picking their schedules and getting settled, Lilavois said, the guidance department at MVRHS is reaching out to those students and families and making sure they have everything they need to feel comfortable and welcomed. 

“The biggest challenge since March has been getting students that we don’t know very well to engage,” Lilavois said.

Prior to Jan. 11, all students besides those in the high-needs cohort were learning entirely remotely, and when the school switched over to the hybrid model, Lilavois said, guidance counselors and administrators reached out in order to provide as seamless a transition as possible into the school building.

Since students have re-entered the building, Lilavois said, it has been a “huge relief,” because kids who normally would be difficult to reach remotely can be located and engaged with in real time.

Because the guidance office at MVRHS works with more than 700 students, it enlists the help of teachers, who are used as “anchors” to provide support to separate groups.

Teachers have been assigned 10 to 12 students whom they meet with once a week through Zoom to check in, go over school news, and catch up.

Now that kids are back in the building, those anchor teachers are meeting with kids every day during their lunch block.

“So it’s really about building those relationships outside of the academic relationship they would typically have with teachers, so students feel open and comfortable sharing their thoughts or concerns,” Lilavois said. 

Although external behaviors exhibited in the classroom are easy to spot for teachers, who then refer those students to guidance, internal behaviors that are only exhibited at home are more difficult to identify.

“It’s easy to recognize when a student is having issues in school,” Lilavois said. But because such a significant portion of education takes place virtually, it is essential for schools to partner with parents and guardians so they can reach out if a child is having trouble.

The school also partners with Island programs such as the Island Counseling Center, the Island Wide Youth Collaborative, Connect to End Violence, and other supports provided by Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. 

Whenever a student is returning to school after being out for any reason, the high school enters them into a Return to Learn program, where counselors and teachers look to provide a seamless transition.

“We do a return-to-learn meeting where we put in place the increase in social and emotional support they need to be successful in the building,” Lilavois said. 

MVRHS is also entering into a pilot program next year for Mental Health First Aid, which at first will offer sophomores and teachers the opportunity to learn about ways to respond to signs of mental illness or substance abuse.

Lilavois encouraged parents to reach out to their school contacts if they are concerned about their child.

MVRHS director of guidance John Fiorito said after the school was able to get hot spots and electronic devices to students who needed them for remote learning, the cohort that was initially established for high-needs students began to expand to a voluntary group where any student who needs additional support can enter in. “One of the things we started when we recalibrated in the fall was inviting kids into this cohort C model,” Fiorito said.

One thing this initiative accomplished was bringing more students into the building on a part-time basis to meet with teachers and counselors, and establish a face-to-face connection with kids.

Currently, Fiorito said 25 percent of freshmen students have opted into the remote cohort, and he hopes he can make them feel comfortable and confident enough to return to in-person learning.

“We want to reach out to those remote kids and say, ‘How can we get you in, how can we make you feel safe?’ Hopefully that will open up a new level of communication and connection with those students, so we can have those real conversations on academics and mental health,” he said.

Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School (MVPCS) director Pete Steedman said the entire expeditionary learning program for students in grades 5 through 12 is an effort to create opportunities for collaboration and engagement outside Zoom classrooms.

“They are traveling around to different places on the Island, to really help with the social and emotional elements of navigating this pandemic,” Steedman said.

By doing fun and hands-on activities like planting seeds at Slough Farm, painting at Featherstone, and learning about various wildlife species at Felix Neck, Steedman said, students are able to learn creatively, and interact with their peers safely and in a way that boosts confidence and happiness.

For each student at the Charter School, personal education plan conferences are held three times a year, where students and families form strong relationships with teachers, counselors, and administrators.

“It’s really about that one-on-one conversation where you cultivate meaningful relationships with kids and families, so if a family is in crisis or a kid is not doing well, that first phone call from an advisor is not going to be jarring, because you already have that level of trust,” Steedman said.

Where to turn for help

Guidance counselors in Island schools are available to speak with parents, guardians, or students about social, emotional, or mental health issues, but there is also an extensive support network available through various Island institutions:

  • Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ emergency services, enhanced urgent care, and domestic and sexual violence on-call services remain available. From 8 am to 6 pm, call 508-693-7900, ext. 247, or reach the emergency hotline 24/7 at 508-693-0032.
  • The Island Wide Youth Collaborative (IWYC), a Massachusetts Family Resource Center, provides services for at-risk families, young people, and community members. Call 508-693-7900, ext. 406, for more information.
  • Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ Island Intervention Center provides outreach and urgent care services, brief interventions, assessments, and immediate access to services for both mental health and substance use disorders. Reach the emergency services team via the 24/7 crisis hotline, 508-693-0032.
  • Island Health Care uses the latest evidence-based screening tools and assessments to help patients identify possible substance use or mental health issues, and provide confidential support, and help individuals and families navigate all available behavioral health resources. Call 508-939-9358 for more information, or to set up an appointment.


Comments are closed.