Fairfax Co. teachers’ union calls for more mental health support

A teachers’ union in Fairfax County, Virginia, is calling for more mental health staffing and resources after a recent survey raised concerns about the mental health of teachers and students.

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers surveyed 824 staff members, and 55% of them said they perceive the mental health of their students has deteriorated since schools closed and distance learning began.

“There is significant anxiety, depression, as well as social, emotional well-being concerns,” said Tina Williams, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.

Williams said the numbers are even higher when it comes to staff responding on their personal level of stress.

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In the survey, 91% of those who responded said they’re coping with more stress with distance learning than they did before schools shut their doors, and 64% said the level of stress has increased significantly.

According to the union, some of the stress for educators involves adjusting to online learning and the tech issues that go along with it. The school system saw several failed attempts to use the Blackboard learning system when it began distance learning.

“We are anticipating that our students and staff will have severe trauma. We are already seeing that now, is what our members are telling us,” Williams said.

She’s calling on the school system to invest more money in mental health staffing and resources.

In a statement, Fairfax County Public Schools spokesperson Lucy Caldwell said the hiring of additional counselors, psychologists and social workers was proposed by Superintendent Scott Brabrand to the school board.

According to the school system’s approved budget for the 2021 budget year, $5.3 million has been set aside for more counselors, psychologists and social workers.

Williams said her concern is the staffing that money will add isn’t enough to address the situation.

Mike Axler, school psychology supervisor, said the school system is sharing many mental health resources online for students and family. He also said staff is available to work and communicate with families that need them using online options.

Axler added that though the school system hasn’t gathered formal data, in some cases, mental health conditions may be conflated with emotional reactions.

“As clinicians, we make it a significant point to disentangle the two, because one of them is a normal and healthy response to stressful circumstances, and the other one, you know, constitutes something that’s more pathological and ingrained,” Axler said.

Right now, every school has at least one counselor, with high schools seeing the most counselors, according to Axler. He said all schools have a designated psychologist or social worker, but may not have those individuals on a full-time basis.

When it comes to addressing the needs of students, Caldwell said the school system supports what she called a team approach.

“We will continue to work together to provide supports within the framework of resources that are provided,” Caldwell said.

2020-2021 school year

Fairfax County Public Schools announced Friday that early discussions have been taking place about what the school year will look like following the summer.

The school system said that there are three likely scenarios for the 2020-2021 school year:

  1. The school year begins with virtual learning.
  2. The school year begins with social distancing practices in place.
  3. The school year begins on time, but some students and faculty will be unable to attend, and virtual learning tools will be made available for them.

FCPS said they will try to make their decisions as early as possible so that they can be communicated to students’ families.

The school system also said that teachers will need additional training in new distance-learning technologies and practices before the school year begins.

WTOP’s Zeke Hartner contributed to this report.

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