During the COVID-19 pandemic, the staff of Brockton Public Schools (BPS) in Brockton, MA worked closely together to provide a robust support network for its students and families around mental health and social-emotional wellness.
The district was able to build upon the network it had in place for its families before the pandemic, coming up with some innovative supports for mental health and social-emotional health throughout the school community.
Learn more about those services from our interviews with bilingual Adjustment Counselors Niola Cadet and Claudia Gallagher and Superintendent Michael Thomas.
Multilingual Call Centers
Before COVID-19, BPS had provided some multilingual staff members with district cell phones so that families could contact them easily. The district decided to expand this outreach once the pandemic began, setting up a call center that was staffed by multilingual adjustment counselors and nurses. The district asked for volunteers who would be willing to answer calls from families and then publicized the numbers so that families could call someone who spoke their language.
Superintendent Thomas says, "That was important to make sure that we were serving the social/emotional needs of not only our students, but also their families because they were dealing with so much — from family members passing away from COVID and job loss to all the other effects of COVID. To make sure that they could pick up and call somebody right away, we ordered more than 50 cell phones and we were able to set up a main line that directed them to somebody in their native language. If you’re trying to ask for help and there’s nobody that hears you in your own language, how much more difficult that would be? So that’s why it was so important for us to have all our languages covered by the different people that took those cell phones."
Niola Cadet, an adjustment counselor who speaks Haitian Creole and French, shares that she was grateful for the opportunity to help out with the service, especially as word spread about the call center. She says she would hear from parents, "Miss Cadet, I heard you helped this parent. Can you help me?"
She notes, "Had I not had that district phone, perhaps I would not have known the families who were struggling with the COVID crisis. So it helped prepare me," she says. She also explains that the relationships she built with families early in the pandemic made her later work during different stages of the crisis more effective.
Claudia Gallagher, an adjustment counselor who speaks Spanish, agrees. "This call center became a big lifeline for a lot of the parents," she says. "It was an extension of what we normally do. So for me, the main job became how are we going to keep the parents emotionally together so that the children remain safe? Because the parents are most aware of how difficult things were and their stress, their anxiety, and their fears were ever-present and that’s what the children were learning and mirroring. And as a counselor, my job was, 'How can we teach the children to be problem solvers, to be resilient?' We do that by empowering the parents."
Video: Providing staff with cell phones to reach families
Superintendent Michael Thomas and Bilingual Department Director Kellie Jones describe their outreach strategy of providing multilingual staff with district cell phones in order to support family communication.
Addressing Basic Needs
This was particularly challenging, she notes, as families struggled with basic needs. "It has been very, very difficult because some of the things that we need families to do to support their children's education are things that really have nothing to do with the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy."
For many of the families that Ms. Cadet and Ms. Gallagher were supporting, the situation was dire. Families were working multiple jobs, often as front line workers who were unable to call in sick, and without any child care. Yet some times, supports from the district were able to make a big difference. In one case, Ms. Gallagher was able to connect a single mother with resources for food that the mother was unaware of, which then allowed her to hire a babysitter.
In addition, Ms. Gallagher describes the high levels of anxiety some students were feeling about having their cameras on during distance learning, whether it was showing their bedroom or not having their hair done because their mom had to go to work early.
Video: Claudia Gallagher recalls an emotional conversation with a single mom during COVID
Claudia Gallagher recalls an important conversation with a single mom that made it possible for her to provide food for her family and get child care.
Taking Time to Listen
As much as the counselors were collaborating with their colleagues to help families meet basic needs, however, they also saw that sometimes families needed a lot encouragement. This was a message that Ms. Cadet reiterated to parents again and again: "I’m here for you, whatever you need. You can vent because it is hard. Let’s be honest, this pandemic is a trauma."
She continues, "It continues to be challenging for our families. And why not give them that encouragement? 'If it’s just a listening ear that you need, I’m here to guide you, I’m here to listen to you. Whatever you need to say to me, it’s okay. I’m a parent too, I understand, I get it.'" In addition, both Ms. Cadet and Ms. Gallagher have been mindful that sometimes a family's culture will have an impact on whether a family is willing to ask for help. It can be taboo, Ms. Cadet says about her own culture, which is why her own encouragement of families is so important.
In addition, Ms. Cadet shares that she would often try to reframe how families were looking at the situation. So for example, if a child wasn't completing their assignments during virtual learning, Ms. Cadet would try this approach: "I feel like your child can do more. He’s capable. What areas does he need motivation? What are the challenging areas? This pandemic is hard for you. And I understand that. But how can I assist you? How can your teachers assist you? What are the challenges that you have? And maybe we could maneuver together and help you figure it out."
Video: Adjustment Counselor Niola Cadet on why some families may not ask for help from their child's school
Adjustment Counselor Niola Cadet from Brockton Public Schools shares some important insights on some of the cultural considerations that may impact how families feel about asking for help from their child's school.
Challenges for the Staff
At the same time, both Ms. Gallagher and Ms. Cadet share some of the ways that this period was difficult for each of them as well. For Ms. Gallagher, she says that learning the technology herself was a challenge. "I had never heard of Zoom, Teams, Schoology. I didn’t even have WhatsApp. So trying to communicate and learn and all those things while at the same time remaining calm and being the calming presence for the parents and the students that this is happening...that was a leap of faith," she says.
Ms. Cadet shares that she was experiencing some of the challenges her families were as well. "I do have a special needs child as well," she says, "so it was sort of hard to juggle back and forth. But I had supportive people say, 'Hey, Niola, you’re not alone in this. We’re here. We’re here to support you if you need someone, it’s okay. It’s hard for everyone.'"
Support from the District
What is clear from talking to staff members across the district is that the district's leaders made mental health and social-emotional support for students, families, and staff a priority and continue to do so. "It goes back to message number one: making sure that we were supporting the people’s mental health and making sure they were taking care of themselves and we were able to support them in doing that," says Mr. Thomas.