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N.J. county forms a partnership to help students and their mental health | Opinion

A survey of educators across school districts and charter schools in Middlesex County about students' social and emotional wellbeing found they were concerned about several issues from chronic absenteeism to the potential for increased violence from students who have not had access to socialization, medication or in-school mental health services. In response, Middlesex County Commissioner Chanelle Scott McCullum, county Prosecutor Yolanda Ciccone and Mark Finkelstein, the superintendent of schools at Educational Services Commission of New Jersey formed a partnership to help students.

By Chanelle Scott McCullum, Yolanda Ciccone and Mark Finkelstein

The last 18 months have been harrowing for our students. Across our nation, children and young adults have faced learning loss, with the effects unevenly affecting communities of color, lower-income students who had less access to broadband and other traditionally disenfranchised groups.

But academic growth — or lack thereof — is only one result of this pandemic. COVID-19 has taken a drastic toll on the social and emotional wellbeing of our students, who have had to contend with unique pressures to survive and thrive during this enormously challenging time. According to the federal Department of Education, almost every student has experienced mental health challenges, with many losing access to school-based services and support. Students of color, LGBTQ+ students and others are particularly at risk. For young adults, the pandemic has also created a greater risk of sexual harassment and abuse from household members and significant others. Online harassment — already a significant problem even before COVID-19 forced students to stay home on their devices — has also increased.

As we return to in-person learning, we recognized that learning more about, and meeting the challenges of, student mental health was vital to ensuring that our students thrive both academically and emotionally. In May, the Educational Services Commission of New Jersey and the Office of the Middlesex County Superintendent of Schools partnered to conduct a survey of educators across school districts and charter schools in Middlesex County to learn more about student social and emotional wellbeing.

The survey findings are stark: concerns range from chronic absenteeism exacerbated by loss of routine; to the potential for increased violence from students who have not had access to socialization, medication or in-school mental health services; to the stress of academic learning loss on students’ emotional wellbeing: to a lack of counselors necessary to adequately screen and address mental health issues.

Administrators are gravely concerned about high anxiety in students as they return to in-person learning. Seventy percent of the survey respondents also indicated students may be impacted by increased Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), which can lead to chronic health problems, mental illness and substance abuse problems in the future.

As a result, the Middlesex County Board of County Commissioners convened a task force, comprised of County government officials, the Middlesex County prosecutor and the Educational Services Commission of New Jersey, to address these issues. The task force’s recommendations should serve as a model for other counties in using a holistic approach in addressing student mental health before it reaches a crisis point.

Middlesex County is working with school districts to develop a “Best Practices” approach to identify and ameliorate the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences events and to implement the necessary support for our students’ mental health that leads to positive social and emotional growth and learning for all students. School districts plan to meet additional needs by hiring more counselors and contracting for services from mental health agencies, such as Rutgers Behavioral Health, or other outside clinical agencies.

Several school districts are planning to implement “Responsive Classroom,” a student-centered, social/emotional learning approach to teaching and discipline. Other best practices include “Restorative Justice” programs, known to help foster healthy relationships, prevent bullying, and reduce student conflicts, as well as the “Nurtured Heart” approach, a set of strategies that helps children further develop self-regulation.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office is similarly engaging in an early intervention program to deter teenagers from continuing a pattern of negative behavior and from progressing further into the juvenile justice system. Participants are educated about internet safety; drug trends and decision-making; fire prevention; and lessons on bias crimes and peer pressure, as well as engage in conversations about anti-bullying, drug awareness, the dangers of impaired driving, and resume building. Interactive programs, instructional periods, mentoring, and activities promote teamwork, education, self-esteem, self-examination, and respect. Other municipal organizations and law enforcement entities across Middlesex County are providing similar diversion programs.

Our children should not be left to their own devices to deal with the myriad issues brought on by this pandemic. They need an all-hands-on-deck approach, not just to survive but to thrive in the coming months and years. The county government is best equipped to bring together local educators and law enforcement officers, non-profit organizations, and its own resources in addressing these concerns.

Our collective work to help Middlesex County’s students is unprecedented. But we live in unprecedented times and the future of our children — the future of New Jersey — is on the line if we do not succeed. Only by bringing a whole-of-government approach and all our resources to these critical issues will we ensure that our students recover from this pandemic both academically and emotionally.

Chanelle Scott McCullum is the Middlesex County commissioner, Yolanda Ciccone is the Middlesex County prosecutor and Mark Finkelstein is the superintendent of schools at the Educational Services Commission of New Jersey.