Given the unique challenges we have faced this year and the recovery ahead of us as we begin to return to in-person learning, the proposed Brunswick School Department budget emphasizes special education, mental health and wellness, capital projects and technology.

Phillip Potenziano, superintendent of the Brunswick School Department.

Last month’s column highlighted the importance of special education, and this month, equally as important, I’ll focus on how the school department’s budget supports student mental health and wellness.

When the coronavirus outbreak led to widespread shutdowns and stay-at-home orders throughout the country in March 2020, Brunswick families were forced to adapt and shift parts of their daily routines. When schools closed and education was immediately moved to students’ homes, the unanticipated and accelerated move to online learning caused significant disparity issues. Even the most gifted educators and the most resilient students experienced learning disruptions, compounding students’ overall mental health and wellness.

Even before the pandemic, childhood mental health and wellness had become one of the biggest issues facing Maine schools. Children from all races and socioeconomic backgrounds experience trauma, are impacted by trauma and are exposed to one or more adverse childhood experiences that can be trauma-inducing. Traumatic events, especially in the early years of childhood, have been found to impact and limit brain development significantly and undermine learning by causing cognitive losses and physical, emotional and social delays.

Maine’s school-age students face additional challenges from the COVID-19 crisis that will further impact their overall future mental health. When students return to school more frequently, they will need more face-to-face support in the here and now to help deal with the post-traumatic stresses that accompany disasters such as this. We most certainly will need to focus on targeted academic instruction, but we will need more human-to-human support specifically related to student mental health.

Here in Brunswick, we are proposing increasing student mental health support pre-K-12 by adding additional social workers at all levels. Schools are an ideal place to provide mental health and wellness services to children and youth. Schools offer an ideal setting for prevention, intervention, positive development and regular communication between schools and families. Brunswick is fortunate to have a cadre of highly skilled professionals, such as school nurses and school counselors, who know the students, parents and other staff, contributing to the accessibility of services. By adding additional school-based social workers, we are, in fact, following the research that has shown that students are more likely to seek counseling when services are available in schools.

Furthermore, school-employed mental health professionals are specially trained to provide services in the school environment. They are specially trained in school system functioning and learning and how students’ behavior and mental health impacts their ability to be successful in school. School social workers are experts in individual support and social-skill development, crisis response, effective discipline, cultural competence and how to consult with educators, families and community providers.

Brunswick continues to enjoy a deep-rooted tradition of excellence, and we remain a leader in public education. Besides our dedicated faculty and staff, community partnerships have proven essential to upholding our strong tradition even during the pandemic. Parents, volunteers, civic organizations, businesses, community leaders and more continue to be vital to our longstanding success.

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