FARMINGDALE — Hall-Dale Elementary School and Hall-Dale Middle & High School are partnering with Kennebec Behavioral Health to help students in the fall as they transition back to in-person learning five days a week.

Hall-Dale Middle & High School Principal Mark Tinkham said he and school counselor Tara Kierstead opened discussion with Kennebec Behavioral Health on how to not only provide students with more support, but also ways in which counselors can educate teachers on social and emotional learning.

The Hall-Dale schools are part of Regional School Unit 2, which plans to bring back all students for in-person learning. In order to do so for the Hall-Dale schools, fifth graders from will move to the middle school to establish more space for the other elementary school grades.

“We don’t know what next year will look like in terms of their needs,” Tinkham said. “What we know is they will be back five days a week, which is awesome, but might trigger something different for some kids, where some have been remote and haven’t been around many people since last March. Now they’re back in a bigger pool, with more students, five days a week.”

There are many “unknowns” about what school will look like when students return in the fall, he said.

During the pandemic, RSU 2 schools took a hybrid approach, with students spending half the week in person at school and the rest of the time remote learning. In the fall, all students are expected in person, with a few exceptions for online classes.

Melissa Chase, Kennebec Behavioral Health’s director of school-based services, said she thinks some students will thrive returning to in-person learning, while others might find the adjustment difficult. She said each child’s experience in the fall will be “unique.”

“In a virtual model, for some students, they saw it as a huge relief. And it works well for them, and they functioned better in some ways, like getting to be at home or having more control over their work environment,” Chase said. “But for many kids, that was the opposite — they struggled hard, younger students needed more oversight, found it difficult to be engaged and to not be distracted.”

She said health professionals and teachers have had to manage students’ resilience across all levels, and that it may take a while for some students to feel “safe” again among different adjustments to their environment.

The counselors at Hall-Dale will bill students’ health insurance provider. If a student and their family do not have insurance or have a low-coverage plan, Chase said there are some opportunities to use the counselor without cost.

So far, only the Hall-Dale schools are participating in the partnership with KBH, which will provide one additional counselor, two days a week at the middle and high school, and two days a week at Hall-Dale Elementary School.

Through KBH’s school-based services, the program works with eight districts and 26 schools across the state and provides services like social skills, trauma and outpatient therapies.

Chase said clinicians are in “high demand” and, as a state, there is a “shortage.” Kennebec Behavioral Health has been able to provide most of their schools with a counselor, she said, although there is a small waiting list.

As for the other RSU 2 high schools, Monmouth Academy has partnered with KBH in the past, but does not have anything currently set up for the fall. Principal Rick Amero said the school “would be willing to do so again” and that it “remains an option for Monmouth Academy, pending student need and if KBH has enough counselors.”

Richmond Middle & High School is currently outsourcing with KBH to have a counselor in the school, but has had “trouble filling the position,” according to Principal Karl Matulis.

RSU 2 Superintendent Tonya Arnold said “all schools (in RSU 2) have contracted service opportunities for supplemental services from licensed, certified social workers.” She said it’s an “opportunity (to provide) support for students whose families agree to have their students see a counselor paid by MaineCare, private insurance or private pay.”

“School teams and organizations are all doing the best they can with staffing they have, and continue to recruit to meet the needs,” Arnold said, adding that with Hall-Dale Elementary sending their fifth graders to the middle school, the high school requested an additional counselor to the high school.

Having the clinician in the schools eases the accessibility for some families, Chase said, and allows teachers and counselors to work together, in the event they are concerned about a student.

Teachers can seek feedback from counselors, too, on ways to handle student’s needs.

“It allows students to get services they need without having to leave the school to get their appointment,” Chase said. “By having a … counselor embedded in the school, they’re able to help support the student’s mental health in ways that is less disruptive to their (educational) experience. They are also able to work collaboratively with teachers and other guidance counselors in order to fully support the student’s progress.”

She added that schools and teachers have had to be “called to do so many different things,” such as be a food pantry, a clothing bank, and more. For students and their education, “it takes a village,” Chase said.

“I truly believe in those, the ‘it takes a village’ approaches, or the wrap around approach. We can come together around a common goal to best support the students as a community, and we will all be better off to do that and use the resources in that way,” Chase said. “I think it’s great, and KBH is thrilled to be a part of being able to support schools in that way.”

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