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Billings officials work to keep children's mental health programs available during school closures

Billings Gazette - 3/19/2020

Mar. 19--Critical mental health services have been put on hold along with Montana schools, and it's so far unclear when children will regain access.

Montana's public schools host a variety of behavioral and mental health initiatives, from clinical-level interventions like Comprehensive School and Community Treatment programs to simply the chance to stop by a school counselor. As schools are in the midst of a two-week shutdown that could last much longer, some programs have come to an abrupt halt.

While clinical providers and school officials are looking for options to resume services, sweeping shutdowns and a health crisis aren't likely to help health issues like anxiety or depression.

"We know that mental health problems don't go away during a crisis like this and a pandemic. In fact, they may actually be heightened," said Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch CEO Mike Chavers.

That's left schools and service providers trying to reconnect with kids.

"We're all kind of building the bridge as we're walking on it," Chavers said.

YGBR closed the Yellowstone Academy Day School, which operates as a K-12 school with students bused in from other school districts in the area. But the organization is committed to keeping its residential program kids.

"These kids are here because they need to be here. Sending them back into an environment where they're without 24-hour care would dramatically increase their risk," Chavers said.

The group has taken steps like eliminating in-person visits and stopping non-emergency travel for residential kids off its campus.

YBGR is a provider for some mental health and behavioral services in schools, like CSCT teams. Chavers said that the group is looking into both telehealth and in-person options to continue those services.

At least some of the decision-making first requires clarification from the state. Office of Public Instruction spokesman Dylan Klapmeier said that OPI has asked for clarification from Gov. Steve Bullock's office about what exactly constitutes a school closure; the definition can affect whether some students could be at schools for a limited time.

"The school districts are all interpreting that differently," Klapmeier said.

Lockwood superintendent Tobin Novasio, who raised the issue during a Tuesday conference call between state officials and superintendents, said that he hadn't received any additional information.

Billings superintendent Greg Upham said that schools are looking at remote or in-person options, but also need clarification.

The district's counselors are compiling a list of resources to help parents and guardians at home, he said, and are planning to set up phone schedules on which students can call their school's counselor.

Counselors at some schools have continued to reach out to kids, like at Skyview High, where staff posted contact information and addressed the closure on its counseling department website.

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention issued the following advice to parents about caring for children's mental health during the pandemic:

-- Take time to talk with your child or teen about the COVID-19 outbreak. Answer questions and share facts about COVID-19 in a way that your child or teen can understand.

-- Reassure your child or teen that they are safe. Let them know it is OK to feel upset. Share with them how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn how to cope from you.

-- Limit your family's exposure to news coverage of the event, including social media. Children may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they do not understand.

-- Try to keep up with regular routines. If schools are closed, create a schedule for learning activities and relaxing or fun activities.

-- Be a role model. Take breaks, get plenty of sleep, exercise and eat well. Connect with your friends and family members.

Matt Hoffman

Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.


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