Despite the upending of regular schedules, Alpha Blanca Alvarado students were booked every Wednesday afternoon of this past school year. Mental Health Wednesday, hosted on Facebook Live, helped us reach students who needed a friend, some guidance or encouragement that we all were feeling the mental health repercussions of this year.
Every week we sent out a Google form for our students to virtually check in with us about their mental health, along with a mental health topic and social-emotional learning resources. That social-emotional lesson for the week is the topic we discuss, record and upload to our school’s social media. Our goal was to highlight real topics and show vulnerability. The students say it humanized us, and every week hundreds of students, families and staff tuned in.
We know that mental health has long had a surrounding stigma. We may be on the path toward normalizing the subject, but even as we have transitioned to remote schooling it is hard to ignore when students display signs of distress, anxiety and depression. That’s why we did our best to meet the demand for resources.
Alpha Blanca Alvarado exists in the Eastside San Jose community, where COVID rates hit pretty exorbitant numbers.
As educators we faced a loss of control and couldn’t always help in ways we wanted. Before schools closed we were providing individual and group counseling to students in-person. Though we pivoted to offer those services online, the environment for the students was so different. There was a lack of social dialogue and attachment; our students talked about missing the classroom environment, the small talk in passing time, the ability to talk with students and teachers outside of just your class and playing basketball at lunchtime. As educators we know it’s important to acknowledge the differences and sadness, and then find the silver linings. This year, we had to look outside of the box to find those.
We began offering weekly social-emotional learning curriculum. We produced spirit weeks, mental health newsletters, weekly mental health videos, and even social media content such as Feather of the Week awards for scholars who exemplified one of our school values and Thankful Thursday for staff appreciation from students (follow @alphamentalhealth for the latest mental health updates from Alpha Public Schools). We also built a website to house all of our mental health resources.
Many may believe students are too young to talk about these mental health topics – like healthy relationships or death/transitions. We believe, however, that normalizing these conversations allows for trust and growth.
We know firsthand that communities of colors, like ours, sometimes shy away from these candid conversations. However, the reality is that many of our students need help right now. Many are feeling isolated, dealing with their family’s health and wellbeing, unemployment, etc.
We know these are real issues and the trauma from this pandemic is real. We are educators because we love and care for our students beyond just their schoolwork. This year we all faced constraints and had to get creative. We hope that as we prepare for a post-pandemic world that we continue to normalize mental health conversations and resources to create healthier spaces in and out of the classroom.
Larissa Bertos is Alpha Blanca Alvarado’s school’s mental health counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist.
Steve Seo teaches 5th grade at Alpha Blanca Alvarado and is also the athletic director, soccer coach, and unofficial social media manager.
Alpha Blanca Alvarado is a public charter school in the Alum Rock neighborhood of San Jose serving K-8 students. It is one of four Alpha Public Schools campuses.