By Lucas Lord
The COVID-19 pandemic has added additional stress to many school-aged children, increasing demand on already over-worked mental health therapists. The Harrisonville School District contracts for two full-time therapists, provided by Compass Health, but the waiting lists for their services are lengthy.
Special Services Director Annie Knox told the school board Jan. 18 more help is needed.
“Our counselors have definitely been tackling a different role perspective this last year,” Knox said. “We are trying to hire more school therapists. We are facing limitations right now because of how our funding is presented. Currently, only students eligible for Medicaid are allowed to access our counseling services.”
Knox said COVID-related trauma has resulted in more students than ever needing services the district can’t keep up with providing.
“We want to change our policies so that every child can access school-based therapy services if they need,” Knox said. “Our teachers have been identifying student needs, but we need to be working on solving and addressing them.”
According to Knox, a survey sent out to teachers revealed an alarming number of staff had said the district was not following through on Individualized Education Programs or intervention recommendations.
“It was alarming the number of students that aren’t currently getting the support that their teachers have already identified they need,” Knox said. “We got some of the survey results and one of the responses that stood out to me was a teacher saying, ‘I simply can’t handle anymore. I’m not a therapist. I wasn’t trained to handle all this.’ As hard as it is, I understand where they are coming from. We need to be putting things in place to help our staff do their jobs.”
With two dedicated counselors for five buildings, Knox said district counselors are being overworked.
“One of our biggest struggles is that our caseloads are simply so high that we can’t get to everyone we need to,” she said. “We want to go up to four counselors in the district, which would put us just short of having one in every building. When we expand, we also want to involve parents who want to engage in therapy alongside their children. That way, we can service families that may not seek that help otherwise.”
Also addressing issues of student wellness, Jason Eggers, assistant superintendent, updated the board on the district’s food program and menu planning.
“Nutrislice does a good job keeping the district on track to meet all the basic and nutritional needs for our students,” Eggers said. “The last couple of years with COVID, we have been running into supply-chain issues.
“However, a lot of federal requirements have been waived just so we can continue to meet the basic needs of our students. We have dieticians who work on creating those menus we use. We just need to be aware of choosing healthier options when we have celebrations or snacks.”
Eggers said while he is no food expert, he knows that if kids are anything like him, they’d reach for cookies and a brownie before they’d reach out for carrots and ranch.
“I just want us to focus and remember that even for ourselves, it’s good to come up with some different rewards for celebrating other than sugary foods,” he said.
“Even if sugary treats are something we all enjoy, it’s important to find that balance.”
While he made no recommendations to the board, Superintendent Paul Mensching said staffing shortages are becoming an increasing concern as staff test positive for COVID-19.
“In Clinton they closed school, in KCK they closed and others are following suit because of their own staffing shortages,” Mensching said. “We have to ask ourselves when enough is enough. I’ve been talking with principals to give me a hardline number so that when we get to that number we can say, ‘OK, we have to close now because we simply can’t operate.’ It is a growing concern.”
Mensching said while Harrisonville has been lucky to not close due to staffing shortages, they could be mere days away from having to do just that.
“Today was a big day for us. At one point it was basically too late to say we weren’t going to be having school, that was at 12 today,” he said. “Last week, we had over 1,000 positive cases in the county. However, we have to be aware that these concerns are everywhere, not just here.”