LEXINGTON, Kentucky — For separate reasons, Lexington kids and parents have been making pushes in recent weeks for Fayette County school officials to increase the focus on student mental health.
Reed Ringler and other Fayette parents are asking officials to consider student mental health when making decisions on returning to in-person learning.
Ringler on Tuesday morning stood outside the former district Central Office on Lexington's East Main Street holding a sign suggesting that the district is "not about the kids."
"The story that's not getting told in Fayette County... is what's happening behind the scenes with substance abuse, depression, suicide and the habitual problems that are happening with young adults right now without having any structure," he said.
In large part, Fayette students have been learning from home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic since March. A decision is expected later Tuesday on whether they will return to face-to-face instruction the week of Feb. 8.
Another Fayette parent, Jillian Kyde, said she stood outside the district building with Ringler because her top priority, too, was mental health for children, for families, and for teachers.
Being away from in-person learning, said Kyde, is "not healthy."
"I've never seen my children cry this much," she said.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that student suicides in and around Las Vegas had pushed the Clark County, Nevada district, the nation's fifth largest, toward "bringing students back as quickly as possible. "
"This month, the school board gave the green light to phase in the return of some elementary school grades and groups of struggling students even as greater Las Vegas continues to post huge numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths," the newspaper said.
The New York Times said superintendents across the country are weighing in-person education against public health.
"Fayette County Public Schools is committed to serving the whole child, and there is nothing we want more than to have our students back in school as soon as we safely can," district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said in response to the parents. "We have heard concerns from our families about how this pandemic has affected their children, both in the short term and long term. Even before families raised these issues, our district had prioritized social-emotional and mental health services and well-being for both students and staff."
In the District Safety Plan, Deffendall said officials included investments in additional district mental health professionals and a districtwide social-emotional learning curriculum for students in preschool through high school.
While schools have been closed due to the spread of COVID-19, every school in the district has incorporated social emotional learning in their weekly schedule and woven wellness activities into lessons, she said. The district has placed an emphasis on building trusting relationships with students, and implemented a system of monitoring online activity for warning signs so that staff can quickly identify students who need additional support, said Deffendall.
"We have responded immediately to all requests from students and families for social emotional and mental health services and will continue to do so both for in-person and remote modes of instruction," Deffendall said. To access that support, visit www.fcps.net/gethelp or call 859-381-4100.
On Jan. 19, Acting Superintendent Marlene Helm said one reason that in-person learning had not resumed was that between Jan. 12 and Jan. 18, 132 students and 38 staff were diagnosed with COVID-19.
As of Jan. 19, 343 students and 123 staff members had tested positive for the virus. Helm said that 305 students and 72 staff had COVID-19 during the entire month of December.
District officials are making decisions about returning to school each week based on a matrix with multiple factors, including a seven day average of new cases in the community.
Ringler is asking that the Lexington Fayette County Health Department introduce a new Back to School Matrix for the 25 and under age bracket.
"This one can include the hospitalizations and deaths associated with overdoses, shootings and suicides during the pandemic. Maybe then we could compare statistics and decide if it is a good idea that we continue to keep our children out of school and activities," said Ringler.
Fayette schools parent Hannah Conn, who identified herself as a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and Supervisor, did not go to the Central Office Building Tuesday, but she is also asking that mental health be taken into consideration in the return to school decision and said some parents were worried about student suicides.
"Keeping our kids out of school may in fact be doing more damage to their mental, physical and emotional health than COVID-19 could ever do. Especially when kids are extremely compliant with social distancing and mask wearing," Conn said in an interview Monday.
"Virtual learning and isolation have created an intense increase in depression, anxiety, ... and mood disorders," Conn said. " ...Parents are crying out for help and while counseling is available for many, agencies are often on a wait or not taking specific insurances." She said the issue seems hopeless for many families.
"The one place of hope, getting our kids back into a safe place for them to learn, socialize and resume motivation and social experiences, seems far out of reach and we continue to be shut down by the Board and Fayette County (schools)," said Conn.
On another front not related to the return to schools, members of a student group called Counselors Over Cops have been meeting with Fayette school board members asking that the board limit the number of police in district schools to the state-required number of one per school and to increase school counselors.
Each main Fayette high school currently has three officers and one sergeant, Deffendall said.
The school district police officer's "sole purpose should be to respond to emergency situations, with no broader role in law enforcement or student discipline. And we ask for money to be reinvested in staff and services that support the safety and well being of all students like nurses, mental health workers, social workers, psychologists and counselors," said Lafayette High School senior Micheline Karenga.
"We've been organizing for a new approach to school safety — one that addresses the root causes of misbehavior, one that is less punitive, and one that includes that safety of all students," Karenga and Bryan Station High senior Benjamin Shapere said in a statement." Our current approach of heavy police presence in schools harms students of color disproportionately and does not make us any safer. At the core, we are questioning why we need police in our schools instead of the people trained to meet the emotional, social, and academic needs of students."
The Lexington students, whose movement mirrors those in schools across the country, have said the presence of school police officers not only disproportionately harms students of color and students with disabilities but fuels a school-to-prison pipeline.
Shapere emphasized that the group was not trying to remove police completely from schools.
Henry Clay High junior Elodie Pittard said in addition to addressing the root problems of violence and misbehavior in Fayette schools, a main goal is to make every student, teacher, and staff member safe both physically and mentally.
Deffendall said there were more mental health professionals than police officers in every school in Fayette County.
Deffendall said since a school safety tax was implemented in 2018, the district has added 27 police officers in schools to a base number of 32 and added 57 mental health professionals. There are currently 215 counselors, social workers and district mental health professionals. The officers have been added at the elementary and middle school level, but mental health professionals have been added at all three levels, Deffendall said.
School board member Stephanie Spires said she and the students had a positive conversation where they both listened and learned. She wants to continue the dialogue to strengthen the relationship between the Fayette schools police department and students.
"At this time I do not believe FCPS needs to decrease the size of the department but also FCPS does not need to significantly grow the department either. I believe that is important for FCPS youth to engage with officers in their schools in a positive way. In the elementary schools, officers are often reading to and engaging with young students, many who may not have had positive experiences with police officers in their neighborhoods," Spires said.