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Schools struggle to provide mental health resources during shutdown

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Virginia school administrators say they are struggling to provide mental health services during the coronavirus pandemic, even as vulnerable students continue with online studies away from regular counseling and support.

As school systems move to virtual learning, school counseling resources, deemed critical to student wellness by the U.S. Department of Education, are unable to provide in-person therapy for high-risk students. The alternative treatments — online sessions or new therapists from community services boards — could fall short in continuing care and supporting students during the pandemic, mental health professionals say.

The global crisis has brought added stress and anxiety to students and their families. More than 100,000 children and teens suffer from mental illness in Virginia, according to the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The pandemic “is going to exacerbate some of those kids’ symptoms — even the kids that have outside providers,” said Nicolo Porto, a high school social worker in Northern Virginia. “The biggest thing that we’re still working through is we can’t provide mental health services to kids.”

For many students, access to trusted adults and mental health resources were suddenly cut off on March 23, when Gov. Ralph Northam officially closed schools throughout Virginia for the rest of the academic year. Several other local school boards had made the decision weeks earlier.

“I was genuinely devastated,” said one student from Chesterfield who had been regularly meeting with her school’s resource officer and relied on support from three teachers. The 18-year-old student, who wished to remain anonymous, said her resources at school were like family to her.

“Those four people were my rock. They were the sole reason why I would get out of bed in the morning,” the Chesterfield teen said. “I never got to say a goodbye or anything. One day they were 3 feet away from me and next they were gone — like someone just turned the light off. I still get emotional thinking about it.”

Universal efforts are being made across school divisions to help children transition, Maribel Saimre, director of student services at the Virginia Department of Education, wrote in an email. Although schools are providing students and their parents with coping strategies during virtual learning, consistency of care is not guaranteed, she said.

“Resources vary by community,” Saimre said. “Crisis intervention is available across all community service boards, but other services are going to vary depending on the locality and providers.”

While some school districts are embracing telehealth, others are hesitant to use it as a replacement for in-person treatment.

Virtual counseling poses privacy concerns, and can produce lower quality care, Porto said.

Porto, who specializes in crisis intervention and trauma, said his role as a school social worker abruptly shifted to an administrative role when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Virginia. Porto had been working regularly with several students when his school district suddenly closed schools. Since his school closed, he has had no contact or time to make contingency plans with any of his students due to legal and ethical concerns.

Each school district has its own guidelines for how or if counselors can contact their students. For example, some districts allow counselors to send emails to students to check in, but others require specific signed permission for outside-of-school contact related to privacy practices and counseling confidentiality.

School social workers and psychologists in Virginia are not required to complete telehealth training as it isn’t necessary in typical school environments. Even with training, Porto said the quality of virtual healthcare is diminished because counselors cannot analyze body language.

Mental health professionals also cannot guarantee a confidential environment over a virtual platform. “There’s no way to be sure that their parent isn’t sitting off camera,” Porto said.

Porto also said that because some families do not believe in mental health treatment, their children lose all of their mental health resources when schools close. Other students who don’t typically seek resources may find themselves in need during social distancing and continued isolation.

School psychologists and social workers are left to focus on providing online resources and communicating with parents, who frequently must initiate contact.

To cope with concerns over treatment gaps, administrators are also referring students to providers outside of the school system. Saimre said some Virginia localities are using an out-of-office voicemail system to refer students to community resources.

“The double-edged sword is that there are actually a lot of places for mental health, but very few of them actually take insurance, and even then, it can still be expensive,” Porto said.

Even if students want to have online therapy sessions, many cannot. In 17 Virginia counties, less than half of the population has access to broadband internet, according to Broadband Now, an advocacy group.

“The well-off kids have access to that, but many, many kids don’t have access to it, so they are caught in a situation where they are deprived,” said Bob Trestman, chair of psychiatry and behavioral health at the Carilion Clinic in Roanoke. “I have no doubt that there are many children who previously were receiving care who now, either no longer have access or, because of the nature of their problems, no longer have the support to continue their care.”

Some districts throughout the state have tried to combat digital inequity by providing computers, tablets or internet hotspots. However, some districts can’t afford it.

“It could have an outsized impact on kids who are not able to connect in person or to connect electronically,” said Lloyd English, a school psychologist for Norfolk Public Schools where hotspots have been distributed to those in need. He expected the extended period of isolation to be difficult for everyone.

The economic collapse caused by the pandemic has left many families in financial distress. Over 410,000 Virginians applied for unemployment benefits during the first four weeks of the crisis. A parent’s stress is often felt by their children.

“As parents, we transmit all of those anxieties to our kids, no matter how hard we try not to,” English said. “Our students definitely feel that pressure, even for the younger ones.”

With mounting financial concerns, children might find it harder to ask for help.

“We’re already starting to see some of our families that may not ordinarily need to access the meal services, coming to the meal service line to get food,” Porto said. “If your basic needs aren’t even met, you can’t begin to think about your health or your mental health. They’re not going to be in an environment that they can do self care because they’re just trying to survive.”

Most school-provided mental health resources will likely remain limited until students are back in classrooms and able to return to in-person counseling.

Porto said he believes there will be an uptick in students needing mental health services in the fall due to COVID-19, whether the student was personally affected by the disease or other stresses related to the pandemic.

Porto has turned to providing online resources for students and families. He created the Mental Health, Wellness and Community Resources for Families, which lists places students and families can turn to in order to cope with COVID-19.

“When we come back, it’s going to hit me like a freight train, how little I was able to do,” Porto said. “I [will] have to put on my work hat and deal with that in the moment because that’s what these kids need from us.”

Emergency Mental Health Resources:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Text “NAMI” to 741741 if you are having suicidal thoughts or urges.


By Alexis Angelus and Stacey Dec
Capital News Service – University of Richmond Bureau

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Virginia early voting nears 200,000 in first week

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Virginia voting is off to an active start, with tens of thousands of people hitting the polls during the 45-day early voting period.

Over 164,000 citizens have voted in person, while more than 926,000 absentee ballots have been issued as of Sept. 25, said Andrea Gaines, director of community relations and compliance support at the Virginia Department of Elections. Over half a million people returned absentee ballots in the 2016 presidential election, according to the department.

Breaking the traditional custom of voting on Election Day, the governor and other top officials hit the polls when they opened Sept. 18. The General Assembly earlier this year removed restrictions to voting absentee and allowed early, in-person voting until Oct. 31. The move allowed individuals to cast their ballots 45 days early.

“While the pandemic has made this an unprecedented election year, Virginia voters have several safe and easy ways to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a press release. “Voting is an essential part of our democracy, and I encourage every Virginia voter to know their options and make a plan for safely casting their ballot.”

About 20 people were lined up, six-feet apart, to vote Friday morning at the Henrico County registrar’s office. Carrington Blencowe was one of the voters. She said that voting early is more convenient for her family.

“This makes it a lot easier than trying to vote the day of because it gives people more time, and we’re a working country,” Blencowe said.

Voters do not have to fill out an application to vote in person early. They just head to their general registrar’s office or satellite voting location, show ID, and cast a ballot.

Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said previous early voting and absentee ballots were much more inconvenient.

“It involved signing a statement saying you had one of a range of acceptable excuses, they included military service, being away at college, travel plans, working from out of the county, or disabilities,” Farnsworth said. “When you think about how much easier it is to vote via mail-in, my guess is that it will remain popular after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.”

The last day to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 23. The Virginia Department of Elections recommends that applicants return their ballot as soon as possible due to the high number of ballots issued. In 2018 and 2019, 90% and 85% of requested absentee ballots were returned, respectively.

By Joseph Whitney Smith
Capital News Service

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Statewide teen seat belt challenge launches “Buckle Up” design contest and free traffic safety kits

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SALEM, VA — Students, schools, and youth groups across Virginia are kicking off a statewide campaign this week to increase seat belt usage rates among teens and youth.

Through a new, virtual format, the five‐week campaign, Drive for Change: Buckle Up and Slow Down will encourage youth and teens to develop a lifelong buckle up habit by reminding them that seat belts are their best defense against injury and death in a crash. In 2019, 65 teens aged 15-20 were killed in crashes in Virginia and of those teens, 56% were not wearing seat belts. According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), 2020 preliminary data reveals 37 teens have been killed on Virginia’s roadways from January 1 through August 31, 2020 and of those, 19 (59%) were unbelted.

“The simple step of buckling a seat belt saves lives but, sadly, we are seeing an increase in the percentage of unrestrained teens killed in crashes in Virginia this year,” said Mary King, YOVASO Program Manager. “Through the ‘Drive for Change’ campaign, we are challenging our teens to change that statistic by influencing and encouraging each other to always buckle up. We hope every teen in Virginia will join the campaign and use their creativity to help save lives.”

In addition to buckling up, the campaign will also address speed prevention which remains a key factor in all fatal crashes involving a young driver with approximately half of fatal teen crashes being caused by excessive speed.

As part of the campaign, Virginia students ages 11-20 will be encouraged to participate in the #DriveForChange Sticker Design Contest by designing a sticker/decal with a buckle up and/or slow down message that will influence youth and teens to wear their seat belt and follow posted speed limits. The winning design will be selected by popular vote on social media during National Teen Driver Safety Week (October 18-24) and announced on October 23. Prizes will be awarded for the top five designs with first place receiving $100, having their artwork produced as a sticker for YOVASO’s 2021 Arrive Alive campaign, and will also receive 100 stickers to share with his/her friends. The other four finalists will receive $25. Contest Guidelines can be found online at www.yovaso.org/driveforchange.

Students may also participate in the campaign by registering for a #DriveForChange kit that includes driver and passenger safety resources, project ideas, and other fun items! Additional options for schools, youth groups, and parents to get involved can be explored on YOVASO’s website.

Drive for Change: Buckle Up and Slow Down is funded by a grant from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles with additional funding from State Farm, which supports prizes and educational incentives and materials.

“State Farm’s primary goal is to keep drivers safe behind the wheel,” said State Farm spokesperson Kate Beadle. “This campaign is a creative reminder to young drivers to always wear seat belts and obey the speed limit. With these actions, the number of accidents, serious injuries and deaths will be reduced.”


For more information or to register for free campaign materials for your school or youth group, contact Casey Taylor, Program Development Coordinator at 540-739-4392 or visit yovaso.org.

Schools and Youth Groups participating in the 2020 Drive for Change: Buckle Up and Slow Down campaign:

  • Auburn Middle School, Montgomery Co.
  • Bristol’s Promise, Washington Co.
  • Central Academy Middle School, Botetourt Co.
  • Eastern Montgomery High School, Montgomery Co.
  • Fluvanna County High School, Fluvanna Co.
  • Forest Middle School, Bedford Co.
  • Galileo Magnet High School, Danville City
  • George Wythe High School, Richmond City
  • Heritage High School, Newport News City
  • Hidden Valley High School, Roanoke Co.
  • Jefferson Forest High School, Bedford Co.
  • L.C. Bird High School, Chesterfield Co.
  • Liberty High School, Bedford Co.
  • Louisa County High School, Louisa Co.
  • Louisa County Middle School, Louisa Co.
  • Luray High School, Page Co.
  • Mallory’s Movement Against Drunk Driving, Chesterfield Co.
  • Narrows High School, Giles co.
  • Page County High School, Page Co.
  • Randolph-Henry High School, Charlotte Co.
  • REACH Homeschool Group, Orange Co.
  • Rockbridge County High School, Rockbridge Co.
  • Walker-Grant Middle School, Stafford Co.
  • Woodrow Wilson High School, Portsmouth City
  • William Byrd High School, Roanoke Co.

Students are also participating from the following schools and universities:

  • Beverley Manor Middle School, Augusta Co.
  • Breckinridge Middle School, Roanoke City
  • Bridgeway Academy, Chesapeake City
  • Broadwater Academy, Northampton Co.
  • Broadway High School, Rockingham Co.
  • Brooke Point High School, Stafford Co.
  • Centerville High School, Fairfax Co.
  • Christiansburg High School
  • Christopher Newport University
  • Colgan High School, Prince William Co.
  • Dinwiddie County High School, Dinwiddie Co.
  • Floyd County High school, Floyd Co.
  • George Wythe High School, Wythe Co.
  • Glenvar High School, Roanoke Co.
  • Graham High School, Tazewell Co.
  • Hanover County High School, Hanover Co.
  • James Madison University
  • John I Burton High School, Norton City
  • John P. Fishwick Middle School, Roanoke City
  • Jouett Elementary School, Louisa Co.
  • King George High School, King George Co.
  • Lancaster High School, Lancaster Co.
  • Menchville High School, Newport News City
  • Milboro Elementary School, Bath Co.
  • Monacan High School, Chesterfield Co.
  • North Stafford High School, Stafford Co.
  • Oak Knoll Middle School, Hanover Co.
  • Park View High School, Mecklenburg Co.
  • Patrick Henry High School, Roanoke City
  • Penn Foster High School, King George Co.
  • Prices Fork Elementary, Montgomery Co.
  • Radford High School, Montgomery Co.
  • Rodney Thompson Middle School, Stafford Co.
  • Salem High School, Salem City
  • South County High School, Fairfax Co.
  • Staunton River High School, Bedford Co.
  • Stuarts Draft High School, Augusta Co.
  • Tabb High School, York Co.
  • William Campbell Combined School, Campbell Co.
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Virginia House bill to guarantee free school meals to students advances to Senate

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Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William

The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill this month to provide free school meals for 109,000 more public school students in the commonwealth.

House Bill 5113, introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, passed the chamber unanimously. Roem’s bill requires eligible public elementary and secondary schools to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

“School food should be seen as an essential service that is free for everyone regardless of their income,” Roem said.

The program allows all students in an eligible school to receive free breakfast and lunch. Currently, 425 schools are eligible for CEP but don’t take part in the program, according to a document that details the financial impact of the legislation. More than 420 schools and 200,000 students participated in CEP during the 2018 to 2019 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

The bill allows eligible schools to opt-out of the program if participating is not financially possible.

Most Virginia food banks have purchased twice as much food each month since the pandemic started when compared to last year, according to Eddie Oliver, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

“We’re just seeing a lot of need out there, and we know that school meal programs are really the front line of ensuring that kids in Virginia have the food they need to learn and thrive,” Oliver said.

Virginia school districts qualify for CEP if they have 40% or more enrolled students in a specified meal program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). It also includes homeless, runaway, migrant, and foster children, Roem said.

Sandy Curwood, Director of the Virginia Department of Education Office of School Nutrition Programs, said school districts receive federal reimbursement based on a formula.

“Making sure that children have access to good healthy food, and particularly through school meals I think is a great opportunity,” Curwood said.

The federal government will reimburse schools that have more than 62.5% of students who qualify for free meals, Roem said. Schools with between 55% and 62.4% of students enrolled will receive between 80% and 99% reimbursement.

“If HB 5113 is the law, how their children will eat during the school day will be one less worry for students and their families,”, said Semora Ward, a community organizer for the Hampton Roads-based Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative. The meals are available whether children are physically in schools or attending virtual classes.

The Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative has raised $8,000 in the past three years for unpaid school meals in Hampton and Newport News, according to Ward.

“While we are pleased with these efforts and the outpouring of community support, we should have never had to do this in the first place,” she said.

Roem was one of several legislators that took on the USDA earlier this year to not require students to be present when receiving free school meals during the pandemic. The Virginia General Assembly passed Roem’s bill earlier this year that allows school districts to distribute excess food to students eligible for the School Breakfast Program or National School Lunch Program administered by the USDA.

HB 5113 has been referred to the Senate Education and Health Committee.

By Aliviah Jones

Capital News Service

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Governor Northam casts vote in November General Election on first day of early voting in Virginia

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Governor Ralph Northam voted early Friday morning, September 18th, in person at the Richmond general registrar’s office on the first day of Virginia’s 45-day early voting period.

New laws allow all Virginians to vote absentee by mail, or in person at their local registrar’s office or satellite locations. The Governor signed legislation this year removing a previous provision that required absentee voters to provide a reason for voting early, so any Virginia voter may vote early without providing a specific reason.

“Virginians can be confident their vote is secure and will be counted,” said Governor Northam. “While the pandemic has made this an unprecedented election year, Virginia voters have several safe and easy ways to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Voting is an essential part of our democracy, and I encourage every Virginia voter to know their options and make a plan for safely casting their ballot.”

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a higher number of Virginians are expected to vote by mail in the 2020 election. As of Thursday, the Department of Elections had received 824,000 requests for absentee ballots by mail. For comparison, 566,000 votes were cast absentee in the 2016 General Election—half by mail.

Virginians have several options for safely casting their ballots for the November General Election.

Absentee by Mail
Beginning today, September 18, Virginia general registrars will mail absentee ballots to voters who request them. Virginians can request a ballot online at elections.virginia.gov. The last day to request an absentee ballot by mail is Friday, October 23 at 5:00 p.m.

All absentee ballots will include a return envelope with prepaid postage. Ballots with a postmark of November 3 or earlier will be accepted until noon on Friday, November 6.

As an additional layer of security, every absentee ballot envelope is required to have an intelligent mail barcode and an election mail insignia. The insignia tells the United States Postal Service that this piece of mail is a ballot and should be prioritized. The barcode lets voters track their ballot once it leaves the registrar’s office—so a voter will know when their ballot has been mailed to them, and when it is delivered back to the registrar. Voters can track their absentee ballot using the absentee ballot lookup tool available here.

Drop-off Locations
Absentee ballots may also be hand-delivered to your local registrar’s office or returned to a secure drop-off location, which includes any satellite voting location. A list of drop-off locations is available on your county or city’s official website. On Election Day, you can also drop off your completed absentee ballot at any polling place in the county or city in which you are registered to vote.

For voters who prefer to vote in person, there are two options.

Early In Person
Starting today, September 18, Virginia voters can vote absentee in person at their local registrar’s office as Governor Northam did. Voters can simply go to their local general registrar’s office or a satellite voting location identified by the registrar’s office and cast their vote. Voters may use this option through Saturday, October 31—one of the longest early voting periods of any state.

Election Day
The other option is the traditional one: voting in person on Election Day, Tuesday, November 3, at your polling place. Polls will be open from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Virginia has allocated federal CARES Act funding to ensure that all election officers have personal protective equipment, and Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers will assist at polling places to ensure social distancing and sanitization measures are followed.

Virginia considers election security to be a top priority and has made significant progress in recent years to ensure a secure election process that places election integrity and voter confidence at the forefront. Additional information about election security in Virginia can be found here.

To register to vote or learn more about absentee voting in Virginia, visit elections.virginia.gov/absentee. Answers to frequently asked questions can be found here.

Follow the Department of Elections on Twitter at @vaElect, on Facebook at @VirginiaELECT, and on Instagram at @va_election.

See below for photos of Governor Northam casting his ballot at the Richmond general registrar’s office today.

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In-person voting starts September 18

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RICHMOND, VA — The Virginia Department of Elections announces that in-person voting begins Friday, September 18, 2020. Also, absentee ballots will be sent to all voters who have requested a ballot by mail.

Voters no longer need a reason to vote absentee. Any registered voter may request an absentee ballot, either in-person or by mail. Voters can request a mailed ballot online at elections.virginia.gov/voterInformation. They can also find a vote-by-mail ballot form at elections.virginia.gov/forms. Or they can contact their local voter registration office and ask them to mail them an application. Contact information for local registrars can be found at www.elections.virginia.gov/localGR.

The last day to request an absentee ballot is Friday, October 23, 2020 at 5pm. Absentee ballots returned by mail must be postmarked by Election Day, November 3, 2020 and received by the local voter registration office by noon on Friday, November 6, 2020. Voters can also drop off their marked and sealed ballots at a drop off location at their local voter registration office or polling place up to 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Early in-person voting ends October 31, 2020. Voters do not have to fill out an application to vote in person. Voters can simply go to their general registrar’s office or satellite voting location, show ID and cast a ballot. More information about what IDs are considered acceptable can be found at elections.virginia.gov/vote.

Because of the anticipated high volume of mail-in votes, The Department of Elections is urging all those who wish to vote by mail to request and return their ballots as soon as possible. Voters can track the status of their ballot applications online at www.elections.virginia.gov/voterInformation. They can also call their local registrar’s office to determine the status of their application.

If you believe you may not safely have a witness present while completing the absentee ballot for the November 3, 2020 Election, you are not required to have a witness present. Also, if you are blind or have low vision or have impaired manual dexterity, you have the option of voting an absentee ballot using an electronic ballot marking tool.

Voters with questions about absentee, mail-in and in-person voting or any aspect of the November 3, 2020 election may call the Virginia Department of Elections at (800) 552-9745, email the department at info@elections.virginia.gov, or visit our website at elections.virginia.gov. Voters are also encouraged to follow us on Twitter at @vaElect, Facebook at @VirginiaELECT and Instagram at @va_election.

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SCC utility service cut-off moratorium will end on October 5; Governor requested extension from September 16

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The general moratorium on utility shutoffs is extended through October 5, 2020. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) issued the order following a request from Virginia Governor Ralph S. Northam. The moratorium was originally set to end on September 16.

In a letter to the Commission on September 14, the Governor said, “My request for an extension will give the General Assembly the time they need to address this issue, finalize their budget, and complete their important work during this special session.”

In granting another extension, the Commission said it will not extend the moratorium beyond October 5, 2020. The Commission urged the Governor and General Assembly to appropriate funds for direct financial assistance to those customers who are unable to pay their bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission said, “We hope the General Assembly uses this additional time to act on this recommendation.”

The Commission wrote, “Since we first imposed the moratorium on March 16, 2020, we have warned repeatedly that this moratorium is not sustainable indefinitely. The mounting costs of unpaid bills must eventually be paid, either by the customers in arrears or by other customers who themselves may be struggling to pay their bills. Unless the General Assembly explicitly directs that a utility’s own shareholders must bear the cost of unpaid bills, those costs will almost certainly be shifted to other paying customers.”

The SCC’s latest extension order means the moratorium will have been in place for more than six months. It was originally imposed on March 16, 2020, as an emergency measure to protect customers from the immediate economic impacts of the COVID crisis.

The end of the Commission-directed moratorium on October 5 does not mean the end of protections for customers in arrears who are making a good-faith effort to pay their bills over a longer time period. Customers who enter such extended payment plans with their utilities will continue to be protected from service cut-offs even after the end of this moratorium.

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