PEYTON NICKS Fremont Grandstand
Mark Shepard knows the vital role mental health plays in student success.
Amid the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have brought in mental health experts and are working to maintain communication with staff and students.
Shepard, the superintendent of Fremont Public Schools, said the focus on mental health didn’t begin during the pandemic, but during an arguably darker time for the city of Fremont.
“In the spring of 2019 we had a 400-year flood,” Shepard said. “That’s when our awareness initially increased and that was before the pandemic. We saw the need for community resources. We saw the need for follow-up with students and their families.
This is when FPS first partnered with Lutheran Family Services, United Way, The Fremont Family Coalition and various churches.
“We wanted to meet community needs beyond just an educational need,” Shepard said.
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Then COVID hit in 2020 and schools started to see the impact of the pandemic.
A theme among school districts’ struggles has been the implementation of COVID precautions such as mask mandates and online classes — a divisive and political issue since the pandemic began.
Cedar Bluffs Superintendent Harlan Ptomey described the issues the districts are having.
“Some of these issues stem from the political divisions of the country,” Ptomey said. “Masks or no masks, vaccination mandates, it’s stressful. We have two sides fighting each other and this must have an impact on our adults as well as our students. It’s unfortunate right now because it’s so divisive.
Shepard cites another cause of unease among students.
“It’s beyond the pandemic,” Shepard said. “Some of the social unrest in the country and what they see and experience on the media or social media has added to that concern.”
Statewide statistics have highlighted mental health issues among teachers and students.
In early December, the Nebraska State Education Association (NSEA) released statistics on substitute shortages and educators’ overall negative feelings about their districts.
One statistic that rang true for many schools in Nebraska was the impact on students.
The NSEA found that 84% of educators who participated in the survey saw an increase in mental health issues among students.
He said this could be due to multiple factors such as the effect of the pandemic on student workload, activities, after-school programs, social limitations and many more. The NSEA also said it doesn’t have to be directly due to the pandemic.
Since the start of the pandemic, school districts in Dodge and Saunders counties have seen an increase in mental health awareness and support.
“Over the past two years, we’ve added social workers and partnered with community resources, including Lutheran Family Services and the Fremont Family Coalition, to provide additional resources to the school and provide support not only to students, but also to their families,” Shepard said.
Schools in Cedar Bluffs have also taken additional action.
“We’ve hired additional staff this year,” Ptomey said. “We have two full-time mental health practitioners on staff.”
Cedar Bluffs unfortunately knows this sense of mental health concern all too well.
In late November, a freshman at Cedar Bluffs High School died from suicide. Since then, Ptomey says student support has been more apparent.
“We’ve added our two practitioners and they come here quite regularly,” Ptomey said. “They would come and talk to the kids and we just wanted to have that support there for our students.”
Shepard pointed to other things FPS has done to help students.
“Another thing we tried to do, and succeeded with, was to keep our students in school as much as possible,” Shepard said. “That was probably one of the biggest problems our teachers and our school district had.”
Shepard raised concerns about online learning.
“When we were learning online, it was really difficult to assess a student’s mental, social and emotional well-being,” he said.
Shepard said mental health was the driver of keeping students in school.
“We were really pleased when the CDC relaxed its guidelines so that students were only absent for five days instead of 10, because that gets them back to school faster,” Shepard said.
Another local administrator cites small class sizes and faith to help students.
Archbishop Bergan’s Catholic principal, Dan Koenig, says the school’s saving grace for student mental health aligns with the size of its classrooms and school.
“We’re going to do what we always do, which is do what’s best for our kids,” Koenig said. “In a smaller atmosphere, we can give our teachers a good idea of what’s going on with each of our students.”
Koenig explained how the system works.
“We have a ‘house’ system in place, so that each child belongs to a ‘family’, so not only do you have grade level teachers who constantly monitor the children, but also other staff who act as mentors and check on their children in their home programs,” Koenig said.
This small stature is what Koenig says allows Bergan to handle cases of mental health issues among students.
Even as a manager, Koenig believes he is also involved in this process.
“I teach social studies in the morning,” Koenig said. “I have 14 to 15 students in each of my classes.”
Koenig said the small number of classes lets him know how the kids are doing and what’s going on with them.
“If I see something going on with a child or if I notice something is wrong, I put him aside quietly and check on his sanity, how he’s feeling and what’s going on in his life,” said Koenig. noted.
Along with smaller class sizes offering more interconnected relationships between staff and students, Koenig also said Bergan also has middle school guidance counselors through high school, but they’re used almost as a last resort.
“The workload is not very heavy because we have 197 students at the college/high school level. This represents approximately 200 students to monitor and take care of their basic needs as well as their mental health,” Koenig said.
Koenig thinks another aspect of Bergan’s ability to tackle students’ mental health issues lies in a fundamental tenet of the school, religion.
“We know our kids extremely well,” Koenig said. “We know their families. We know what they are going through. We not only have the ability to monitor them mentally, but we also have the ability to speak to them about their life of faith.
Koenig spoke about the importance of this life of faith.
“We constantly rely on our faith, being a Catholic school. We talk about how faith is going to get them through these times,” Koenig said.
Koenig recognizes the value of a tight-knit environment.
“We have a family atmosphere and the families take care of each other,” Koenig said. “We raise these children as if they were our own. We work hand in hand with their parents so that these children can get through difficult times and perform at their best.
North Bend Public Schools Superintendent Dan Endorf spoke about what the pandemic itself has brought to school districts and the country as a whole.
“The pandemic has and continues to create heightened anxiety among students, staff, the community and society at large,” Endorf said. “The virus has led to an increased workload, more stress and difficult conversations compared to how we normally run a school. These are unprecedented times and we are all learning as we go. I am very happy with how our students and staff have responded in these difficult times.
Endorf appreciates the students and what they have experienced.
“The students are resilient, but they’ve been through a traumatic few years,” Endorf said.
With administration, staff and the community at large looking more deeply into mental health issues and solutions among students in various schools, it now draws on the resources available in the various districts to offer their students the support they may need.