Licensed clinical social workers Tony Viet, left, and Michelle Burns sit at a picnic table Thursday at Cony Middle and High School in Augusta. For the new school year, there are picnic tables in what used to be the visitors’ parking lot. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — Teachers in the Augusta Public Schools have received social and emotional training so they may help students transition back to school during the coronavirus pandemic.

The training was inspired by Maine Department of Education guidelines and provided by Michelle Burns and Tony Viet, the licensed clinical social workers at Cony Middle and High School, in a series of presentations before the start of school.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, there was talk of implementing the program with the education department, Burns said, recalling a time in February when it was first discussed.

As the pandemic continued through the summer and the start of the 2020-21 school year grew nearer, Burns and Viet thought it was the right time to provide the training.

“This was something that we would normally do in a clinical process, but we had a huge opportunity because of COVID-19,” Burns said. “A huge door opened for us to spend more time intentionally supporting the staff, delivering this material and emphasizing the importance.”

As students returned to Cony, Principal Kim Silsby wanted to focus on four areas she has nicknamed “Ram Academy,” named for the school’s mascot, to drive students toward academic success.

The four areas of “Ram Academy” include: Dealing with the pandemic, the new structure of remote learning, technology and social and emotional health.

“We have the system set up so if students need additional help, they can work with the social workers,” Silsby said, but additionally, teachers have been trained by Burns and Viet to be mindful and alert to signs students might be struggling, such as changes in behavior or attention to classwork.

Students are attending Cony Middle and High School under a hybrid model, and split into three cohorts: A, B and a fully remote C.

The Maine Department of Education is categorizing the state’s school districts into green, yellow or red zones, and Augusta schools are now in the green zone, along with most of the state. The only yellow zone is in York County, the southwesternmost county in Maine, along New Hampshire’s eastern border.

The material provided to Cony’s teachers focused on five core concepts: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

Although the presentation was created by Viet and Burns, the core concepts were from a program called CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social,
and Emotional Learning.

According to CASEL data, 270,000 students who participated social and emotional-management training in 213 different studies saw their academic success improve by 11% in comparison to students who did not have social and emotional training.

In addition to improved grades, dropout rates, drug use, pregnancy rates and mental health problems decreased in students who went through CASEL training, according to reports.

“Self-awareness is through developing a relationship with yourself, checking in with yourself and using that information to move forward in a productive way,” according to Viet and Burns.

“For self-management, it is important to check in with yourself and move forward in a productive way. If you have social awareness, you can choose to be aware of your mental state on others.”

Collectively, being self-aware can influence decision-making and relationships, they said.

Teachers at Cony are expected to use the knowledge and tools they have learned to help students with the transition back to school.

Licensed clinical social workers Michelle Burns, left, and Tony Viet sit Thursday outside Cony Middle and High School in Augusta. They are at one of the picnic tables now in what used to be the visitors’ parking lot. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“This is sort of a natural disaster in a way that we are all living through, and all impacted differently,” Viet said about the pandemic. “This lets us manage underlying emotion or stress that may be there. We can use the tools to be intentionally thoughtful about what we are responding to.”

Burns added uncertainty and unpredictability brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have left many people feeling anxious, unsettled and overwhelmed.

Along with students, many teachers have said they were feeling stressed about the return to the school. Augusta even delayed the start date of elementary school by two days — to Sept. 10 — to allow teachers more time to prepare.

“All the teachers were stressed last week. There was a lot going on,” said Jan Murphy, the speech teacher at Hussey Elementary School.

Murphy said she discussed concerns with a mother who was not sure about sending her son back to school. He was worried after being away from in-person learning for six months.

When Murphy told the mother and son about the changes at Cony and how administrators and teachers planned to help with students’ stress, the boy agreed to participate in person.

“It’s all so unknown, and all kids are coming from different places,” Murphy said. “Some kids may be running through the door, excited to start. Others are so nervous to come back.”

Murphy is also a member of the Augusta Education Association and received the social and emotional training provided by Viet and Burns.

Licensed clinical social workers Michelle Burns, left, and Tony Vietare wear their masks Thursday at Cony Middle and High School in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

One of the ways Hussy Elementary School is changing the routine for students is to place breakfast on their desks in the morning, making sure the children have opportunity to eat and relax before the start of each school day.

Before the pandemic, Murphy said, students would have breakfast right before morning recess, which often resulted in their rushing to eat so they could get outside to play.

Back at Cony, teachers have participated in activities, including meditation and yoga, to destress and learn how to teach them to students.

To Silsby, such activities and knowledge are as important for teachers as for students.

“You cant help someone put their mask on,” she said, “without putting yours on first.”


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