In Newburgh, school psychologist Kelly Caci is putting together an in-person and online bereavement group for students who have lost a family member or friend due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two students lost a parent and another a coach in a community league. Students have lost grandparents and friends to the virus.
The role of school psychologists has expanded in need and importance as students struggle with drastically changed lives due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, isolation, family addiction issues, an increase in poverty, and adjusting to hybrid learning. During National School Psychology Week Nov. 9–13, the spotlight is on school psychologists’ heightened role and the work they do to help students thrive.
“Life is nowhere near ‘normal’ anymore. The pandemic has definitely caused an increase in anxiety and depression,” said Caci, a member of the Newburgh Teachers Association and of NYSUT’s Health Care Professionals Council. Additionally, she noted that online learning requires a lot of independence and some students struggle with that.
“School psychologists fill a number of roles within a school,” said Beth Rizzi, a psychologist with the Wappingers Congress of Teachers and president of the 900-member New York Association of School Psychologists. “We provide both mandated and non-mandated counseling services, crisis intervention, teacher consultation, assessment for eligibility of special education, data collection to assist in decision-making, intervention and instructional support, collaboration with families, and collaboration with colleagues.”
Today, there is much reason for educators and school psychologists to be on high alert.
“The stress during the pandemic is clearly leading to an increase in substance use leading to addiction and overdose,” said Caci, noting one of her students lost a parent to an overdose.
A bereavement group allows children to process feelings in a safe and caring setting, said Caci. “The loss of a parent is devastating. It is one of the most stressful and traumatic events a child will experience. This also applies to caring adults who may not be related — coach, teacher, etc.”
To help students cope with a world that has been spinning with change, Rizzi said she frequently promotes mindfulness practices, meditation, breathing practice and following a routine — depending on the student’s individual needs and stressors.
“Each situation has its own unique challenges,” Rizzi said. “I have worked with students over the phone rather than utilizing Google meet. Additionally, I try to ensure that the student has relative privacy to access their services. It is so important to ensure that the student trusts that you have their best interests at heart.”
This year’s theme for National School Psychology Week is “The Power of Possibility.”
Long Island school psychologist John Kelly said the prolonged nature of the pandemic, along with a lengthy, tense election season, an increase in poverty, and racial unrest have created more stressors for students.
Kelly, a member of the Commack Teachers Association, appeared on a CNN town hall in May with Anderson Cooper on the effects the pandemic may have on children. ()
Students are also concerned about exposure. School psychologists work to help students maneuver this world.
“We talk about being responsible, gathering in smaller groups, meeting outside, and wearing masks,” Kelly said. “The vast majority is trying to be responsible.”
He said the increase in poverty, spiked by job losses due to COVID-19, “is almost like a silent pandemic.”
Navigating COVID-19 restrictions creates challenges for providing help to students. Some students can be met with in person on days they attend school — many districts use a hybrid model. But using personal protective equipment can make the connection cumbersome.
Meeting in groups — such as Banana Splits, for students whose parents are divorced — is close to impossible, Caci said, because of the need for social distancing.
Some families have opted for all online learning, so psychologists meet with those students online or by phone.
Challenges in teletherapy include making sure students have access to technology, difficulty reading emotions, and limits to hands-on activities and therapeutic games.
“It is also difficult if a student becomes upset or needs additional support and shuts off their camera or disconnects from the session. This is in addition to the technology issues such as sound or cameras not working, or internet instability,” Caci said. In some areas, access to the internet is unavailable.
Above all, however, technology has allowed school psychologists to continue helping students.
“The plus for me has been the ability to maintain contact,” said Kelly, who took professional development classes in providing virtual services and using different platforms. He then worked with a school social worker and teachers to create a socio-emotional toolkit with strategies to infuse in the classroom or use virtually.