WATAUGA — With many students learning virtually this school year, staff at Watauga County Schools don’t get to see them face-to-face as often as they want, but their health is still a priority.
Students who are learning remotely — either with the Watauga Virtual Academy or learning from home for the three days a week schedule — still have full access to school counselors, nurses and social workers.
“Whether students are physically in our buildings or meeting with staff remotely, we are in as close contact as possible with them and their parents,” WCS spokesperson Garrett Price said.
Price said teachers help make sure the system is meeting the needs of students.
“They are in constant contact with their students and know them best among our staff,” Price said. “If a teacher sees a pattern in a student’s behavior that isn’t normal, or if a student becomes disengaged or acts out, teachers can report that behavior to social workers and counselors who are able to contact the student or their parents directly to ensure their wellbeing.”
Price said when it’s safe to do so, WCS nurses and counselors prefer to have meetings with students and parents in person, but are equipped to do so virtually if need be. The circumstances of this school year has required more vigilance among student services staff as well as being more connected with teachers, students and parents.
Social workers visit a home when it’s required and when a home visit is preferred by the family.
“First and foremost, we want to respect their wishes and make sure they are comfortable with a visit,” Price said.
Shelly Klutz is the lead nurse for the school system. The hardest part for her is not seeing students face-to-face as frequently.
“I remember the first day this year we had students back,” Klutz said. “It was not only exciting to them, but my excitement was just through the roof. I didn’t realize how much I needed to see them and interact with them.”
When the pandemic first hit, staff at WCS had to quickly adapt while students were completely remote in the spring.
“There have been students that we have been working with throughout the year that we have become pretty close to,” Klutz said.
Some students have medical equipment that they need, so when schools and businesses shut down in March 2020, nurses would call to make sure students had that equipment. If they did not have what they needed, Klutz said they called around different practices in the area to help get those students the supplies needed until people adjusted to the pandemic.
Klutz said she has had parents reach out to her who were concerned about their child who was struggling with signs of depression or anxiety.
Klutz’ advice to parents to help manage mental health is to try and get out of the house some even if it’s just a car ride or a hike. She also said to make sure children are eating a well balanced meal.
“Just taking care of our bodies the way that it needs to be taken care of,” Klutz said. “If your child needs something or needs that reinforcement from a school nurse, let us know.”
Price said the school system is seeing a greater need for mental health services in schools, but that was also true before the pandemic.
“Some of the issues driving that need are new and are precipitated by the pandemic, but some are issues that have been present for years,” Price said. “We’ve made an effort over the past years to add additional nurses and counselors to our staff to ensure that students have the best-possible access to mental health services.”
In the past two years, Price said WCS has added new positions at Hardin Park School, which now has three counselors, and Parkway School, which now has two counselors.
“Watauga High School has four full time counselors and the smaller K-8 schools will continue to have one full time counselor each,” Price said. “Additionally, we partner with two external providers — FOCUS and Children’s Hope Alliance — who offer supplemental mental health services at our school sites.”
One of the difficulties for school officials this school year is the time nurses have to dedicate to contact tracing to prevent COVID-19 spread within the school.
“We’re constantly trying to make sure that we’re doing investigations,” Klutz said. “A lot of times we can spend a little bit more time than the state contractors can and explain things. We really try to help parents understand the logic behind the quarantine time, the logic behind the mask.”
Klutz said the school system is testing students even if they are completely virtual. Because nurses aren’t able to get the one-on-one time they typically get during the school year, Klutz said they are having to refer students to the counselors or social workers.
“We would do a lot of one on one counseling with students for anxiety or any kind of social emotional things,” Klutz said. “We’re having to refer to a lot of that and add that to our counselors and our social workers caseloads because we’re having to spend a lot more time with the investigations.”
The school system is continuing to operate its self-reporting system called the Say Something App. The app lets students, teachers, staff and parents anonymously report tips about a wide variety of potential issues, Price said.
Contact information for school nurses, counselors and social workers can be found at www.wataugaschools.org/Page/1303.