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'Kids are struggling': Advocates check on children as school-based mental health services shift

With school buildings closed for the rest of the academic year, students are missing out on key mental health supports that they previously received at school.

“I’m concerned that kids are going home without receiving services,” said Michael Farley, the chief executive officer of Elk Hill, a Goochland-based organization that provides a range of behavioral health services to children, including those from Richmond to Charlottesville. “They’re going home to stressed families, and a lot of issues stem from trauma. They’re going to have more trauma. That just compounds the issue tremendously.”

Since Gov. Ralph Northam closed schools in mid-March, Elk Hill and other private special education facilities have had to close their schools and switch instruction online. The closures also meant an end to in-person counseling and school-based counseling services such as therapeutic day treatment offered by Elk Hill, Region Ten and other providers.

Farley said Elk Hill is exploring telehealth options to continue to provide a form of TDT. Recently, Region Ten, the community service board, started offering remote counseling and virtual group therapy sessions. The organization did reach out to families who were participating in school-based services in order to ensure that they can access the telehealth option.

“We are making it up as we go,” Farley said. “The state is doing the same. Localities are doing the same.”

Meanwhile, providers such as Elk Hill are exploring telehealth counseling to continue to help children.

Public school systems are providing resources to families and checking in on students through phone calls and other means of communications.

In Albemarle County, school officials have used weekly phone calls to check in on students’ emotional well-being and connect families to resources.

“When the teachers are talking to the students and the parents, if they have a sense that there’s more that they need, they’re pulling in the counselors,” said Debbie Collins, the county schools’ assistant superintendent for student learning, during the School Board’s March 26 meeting. “So that’s the other piece. Counselors are calling, teachers are calling, a variety of people are calling to check on students. Our most fragile students, our counselors know, and they’re having more check-ins with them more than just once a week.”

The division has posted a range of mental health resources on its website.

Counselors in Charlottesville City Schools also compiled resources about talking to children about the coronavirus, mental wellness and social-emotional learning. Families are encouraged to reach out to their school counselor if they need assistance.

Outside of the schools, National Alliance on Mental Illness of the Blue Ridge typically hosts weekly support groups for families of those struggling with mental illness, but those meetings have been canceled for the time being to comply with social distancing guidelines.

Suzanne Malm, vice president of the local NAMI chapter, said she’s still checking in regularly with families through phone calls, texts and Snapchats to support them during this time

She tells parents and family members to take care of their own mental health and try to stay positive. For parents unexpectedly thrust into the role of teacher, she advises structuring the day like school with different activities and breaks.

“Kids are struggling and so are parents,” Malm said. “Please forgive mom and dad if they are not doing their best jobs.”

Those in need of assistance can call NAMI at (434) 260-8127.

In the wake of the school closures, school systems are still required to provide services for students in special education; however, school-based counseling is not always included in an individualized education plan.

TDT is a key program to help children who have serious emotional and behavioral needs, but changes this school year already limited access to the program, threatening its existence.

To qualify for TDT, a child must be diagnosed as having an emotional or mental health disorder; must be a danger to themselves or others; and/or must be at risk of removal from their home.

The Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services has approved one unit of telephonic TDT per day, Farley said. Ideally, students would receive two to three units a day in school.

Farley said Elk Hill staff have spent the last week reaching out to TDT families to see if they want to participate in the remote option. About half have opted in so far.

“Kids are going home to families who are struggling themselves,” he said. “They are in our schools because of emotional and behavioral health issues. I’m concerned we are going to see kids move up to a higher level of services if we can’t help them now.”

For Elk Hill and other providers, the challenge is to figure out how to provide services to students in need while also making sure they get paid. Without income, they can’t afford to stay open.

“Most of us are going ahead and trying to provide services without knowing if we are going to get paid,” he said. “We’re doing the right thing.”

Private special education facilities receive funding from the Virginia Department of Education, Medicaid and through contracts with localities, among other sources.

Farley credited Charlottesville and Albemarle for continuing to pay Elk Hill’s contract in full through the rest of the year, though not all localities are making that same decision.

Elk Hill serves students with behavioral health needs and learning disabilities. When schools initially closed down, Elk Hill teachers sent students home with packets of work. Now, they are shifted to virtual learning, providing laptops and hotspots to students, and offering individualized instruction over the phone or online.

Throughout Virginia, private facilities could have to furlough or lay off more than 2,000 employees, according to a survey Farley conducted of Virginia Association of Independent Specialized Education Facilities members.

“They’re looking at losing $44 million,” he said.

Furloughs or layoffs are a possibility for Elk Hill. Region Ten employees already have been furloughed or laid off in recent weeks.

On Friday, Farley posted an update to Elk Hill donors and supporters.

“Like so many nonprofits across the region and nation, Elk Hill is facing unprecedented financial challenges resulting from social distancing and closures,” Farley wrote. “We will weather this storm, but we are also hopeful that our supporters, if they are able, will consider a donation to help us through this challenging time.”


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