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Webinars help educators meet students’ emotional needs during pandemic

Tracey Benson is Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, a racial equity consultant, and an author. He presented a May 11 webinar titled "Ensuring Equitable Virtual Learning Plans during the COVID-19 Pandemic."
Tracey Benson is Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, a racial equity consultant, and an author. He presented a May 11 webinar titled "Ensuring Equitable Virtual Learning Plans during the COVID-19 Pandemic."

It came as a blow to the Massachusetts Partnerships for Youth in March when the coronavirus pandemic forced it to cancel its in-person professional development events for the rest of the school year.

“We were heartbroken,” recalled Margie Daniels, executive director of the nonprofit headquartered in Wakefield. But the group quickly turned that sense of loss into a new short-term mission.

Since March 24, the organization has been presenting a regular series of webinars to support school psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors, nurses, teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals in helping students address their pandemic-related behavioral and mental health needs.

The two-hour interactive webcasts, presented over the Zoom platform and available free to all Massachusetts educators, typically attract 600 to 1,000 participants. Combined, the webinars have reached more than 27,000.

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Led by a variety of specialists, from college professors to mental health professionals, the webinars cover topics ranging from “Social Media and Mental Health During Social Distancing” to “Fostering Healing and Connection During and After COVID19.” Each includes a chatroom allowing participants to ask questions or comment.

Jason Levene, administrator of counseling health and wellness for the Winchester public schools, said he and other district staff have found the webinars “very helpful and relevant.”

Levene said this is a challenging time as they try to connect virtually with students to help them cope with a stay-at-home lifestyle.

“Social isolation is a big challenge for many kids, as is trying to practice mindfulness in an age where there are competing digital stimuli,” he said, noting that there is also a need to help families “balance the many challenges that come with supporting their children’s learning with meeting their overall family needs.”

Massachusetts Partnerships for Youth normally provides conferences and in-district workshops primarily for school staff but also for students and parents, on social and emotional health topics.

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Founded in 1988, the group exclusively served Middlesex County school districts until it expanded about three years ago. It now has 145 member school districts, private and charter schools, educational collaboratives, and community agencies.

The organization, normally funded by member group fees and private donations, has been able to offer the webinars — and to open them to educators free statewide — due to a $300,000 state budget earmark for this fiscal year.

Daniels said the idea for the webinars — set to continue through mid-to-late June — came from a realization of “how upsetting and disconcerting it was to professionals to have their schools suddenly closed.”

That so many have participated, she said, “speaks loudly to professionals really needing and wanting this type of training and collaboration now.”

Erin Burger, a school psychologist for the Beverly public schools, has attended some of MPY’s conferences the last two years and found them “great experiences. The webinars are a nice way to keep that going while we’re all at home.”

“They’ve been really timely,” she said, noting that in addition to useful guidance, the sessions provide resources for participants to share with students, their families, and other staff.

Burger said she, too, sees the stress and anxiety children are experiencing from the pandemic.

“In the beginning, it was all kind of novel and a surprise to have time off from school,” she said. But as the school closures have continued, “it’s been really tough on them,” she said, citing in particular the loss of routine interactions with teachers and peers. She said not being able to experience the normal year-end school celebrations just compounds that sense of loss.

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“And now, especially with the weather becoming nicer, many are feeling disconnected and overwhelmed,” she said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.