PORTLAND, Ore. — Kids are getting ready to go back to school and teachers are preparing for in-person learning. The pandemic is still a concern, so educators know it’s not business as usual.
To address the mental stress that’s come with the pandemic, this year the Oregon Department of Education has kicked off its new “Care & Connection” campaign.
“We need to make sure that we're creating the conditions in school where people feel safe and heard and valued and understood so that you can care for their mental health and also give them the space to learn,” said Dr. B Grace Bullock, a mental health strategist for the Department of Education.
Bullock said the campaign builds on work districts have done previously when welcoming students back to school.
“But the difference this year is that we're setting a clear intention,” she said.
The intention is that districts focus on mental health and taking care of social and emotional needs during the first full week of the school year, if not longer if districts choose. Activities could include things like music, taking kids outside or just talking to kids about how they’re feeling.
“We know relationship is everything,” said Francesca Sinapi, the equity, access and engagement officer for the Hillsboro School District.
Sinapi said teachers are coming back on Monday and later in the week students will be back too. Over the course of two days before school starts, teachers will touch base with students.
“Every family and every student will get a phone call and a Google meet,” said Sinapi.
Then, in the Hillsboro School District, Sinapi said during the school year elementary kids will have time in their day dedicated to connection and social/emotional needs. Secondary students will have the opportunity 2-4 times a week.
“Absolutely no excuse, we're all doing it,” Sinapi said.
She said since last year, the district has put more focus on social and emotional well-being in light of the pandemic. Sinapi said for years there have been morning meetings at some schools, but they weren’t as focused on mental and emotional well-being. This year, 20 to 30-minute morning meetings addressing those types of needs will be a non-negotiable.
“For anybody who may have thought, oh, that's hubbub […] you know, touchy feely stuff, now knows that the state is saying that this is important. To care and connect with your kids, is your top priority,” said Sinapi.
“We know through a lot of science that relationships really are at the heart of mental health and we need to take time to build those relationships before getting into the business of learning,” Bullock said.
Bullock also said the manifestation of the Care & Connection campaign will look different from district to district.
In addition, the state is also encouraging districts to make sure their teachers are feeling valued and cared for as well. Bullock said they’re asking districts help facilitate care and connection among school staff a full week before school starts.