Alejandra Ayala, who began working with the Carson City School District’s elementary level in 2016-17 and transferred to the high school level as a social worker, said she enjoys working with students and families.
Carson City School District’s case management for students in terms of academic, mental and social anxiety has changed with the pandemic, but school social workers are doing what they can to connect youth to the right resources, program manager Dave Caloiaro says.
Caloiaro and two district social workers recently presented to the school board’s trustees some insights on interventions to address students’ mental, emotional and social needs in the hybrid model due to the pandemic.
CCSD, the only district in Nevada to have at least one school social worker at each of its public schools, soon celebrates National School Social Work Week, set for March 7 to 13, recognizing the central role these professionals play in helping students with personal, familial and academic success in school.
Alejandra Ayala, who has a master’s degree in social work and works at Carson High School, said students typically struggle with inconsistency at home without a strong structure in place. She shared during the Feb. 9 school board presentation that older siblings have a tendency to take on additional roles or tasks for parents in their absence while they’re working. Since they’re only seeing their teachers physically once a week, they’re missing much of the social interaction they were used to before the pandemic, she said.
“In a situation of a loss of family member, loss of job, loss of income, it is hard to accept that help,” Ayala said. “We’re working with those families to help get them to a place where we talk about services and what their options are.”
There are few Spanish-speaking mental health providers as well to assist with translation or interpretation, she said. Families are limited in options or resources outside of school for counseling, and the social workers themselves receive reports about certain behaviors or interventions or referrals.
“Right now with isolation, that’s pushed it with a lot of our kids with student absences,” Ayala said. “And if a student, right now, at least at the high school, they’re in two cohorts and teachers are only seeing them once a week. And if they miss that day now, it can be two or three weeks they’re seeing that student just based on the amount of those absences per class.”
Ayala said the social workers do join together with the teachers and make sure referrals are made to appropriate staff members for additional support to give students access to resources beyond the classroom if they’re in need of basic needs, such as food or counseling.
While using Zoom has been a challenge, she said, the social workers attempt to do the best they can in one-on-one meetings with students, who typically are looking out for their own siblings.
“They are working with those families to get them to a place where we can get them to a place where we talk to them about services and what their options are,” Ayala said. “In regards to success, just working together in our school buildings, working with our teachers has been very beneficial.”
This might include referrals to an appropriate staff member on campus who might identify where a child’s academic or emotional gaps might exist at home. Ayala had mentioned a student who was displaying suicidal tendencies for which the Mobile Crisis Response Team was contacted to ensure the student received the proper services and weekly check-ins to stay healthy.
Maggie Portillo, one of two district licensed social worker interns and has worked at Eagle Valley Middle School for two years, said there has been an increase in the school’s Food for Thought programs recently and with school avoidance in children.
“Parents are saying, ‘My child doesn’t want to go to school or their stomach hurts,’ and it’s because a parent got sick and a child got traumatized. They have an elderly family member living with them, they have headaches or light that bothers them, to keep students at school and to help them out through these feelings,” Portillo said.
Portillo said she meets with the students in her office when they feel sick or anxious and speaks with them to help them through their anxiety. In one case, one student who wasn’t even coming to school had been failing two classes.
“It’s more positive for them to be in school,” she said, recalling her own experience of dropping out of school when she was younger, later adding why she became a social worker. “I had nobody to guide me, and I just went along doing the wrong thing, and then my light bulb came back on. Because I didn’t have that, I wanted to be that for my kids. I was a screw-up.”
Portillo, shared at least one positive outcome among her sixth graders who initially were attending in person two days of the week and now come four days. One student went from failing across the board to improving to an A, B, C and D, and Portillo said she speaks regularly with her counselor and to get involved with sports such as volleyball or wrestling next year as an incentive once restrictions loosen.
“I do meet with her every day for lunch and I encourage her, so maybe that has something to do with it as well,” Portillo said. “She hated coming here, she’d cry. She felt like every day was the first day of school. … I didn’t even think she’d make it. I would encourage her and everything, and now she comes in for lunch and says, ‘Did you see my grades?’ ”
The social workers also assist in other services as necessary, including student suicide ideation. For students who display signs of suicidal tendencies, as Ayala shared on Feb. 9, the professionals will initiate a screening comprised of six questions assessing whether a student is at risk of committing suicide and will partner with Carson Tahoe Behavioral Health Services or a rural Mobile Crisis Response Team to complete a virtual assessment, which had been done physically on a school campus prior to the pandemic, Caloiaro said.
School social workers assist primarily with prevention programs, including antibullying, social-emotional learning, student small groups working with similar issues such as chronic absenteeism issues or behavioral management and finally they will make home visits. These appointments, which are infrequent, often are necessary for students in need of one-on-one work or personal environment or psychosocial issues with the child and their families.
Caloiaro also said Carson City School District has been fortunate in recent times to receive grant funding to continue supporting its growing social work services. It has become a subgrantee of two grants to assist with its student and public health needs. Project AWARE is a $10 million grant to establish in a five-year period more community mental health services into its schools from the Nevada Department of Education’s Office for Safe and Respecting Learning Environment. Carson City School District has received $280,000 a year for five years, Caloiaro said.
The other grant is the three-year Multi-Tiered Systems of Support fund, which offers technical assistance and training from the University of Nevada’s Center for Excellence and Disabilities to strengthen the prevention programs Caloiaro referred to for the district’s workers and site administrators, school counselors and nurses to implement.
While the district prepares to honor the work these professionals are helping with next week, Ayala said the positive impacts on students on a daily basis do a make a difference.
“It really benefits these families navigating the systems,” Ayala said. “Knowing I’ve made a difference, that makes me feel good and that I continue to come here. I know there’s a lot of challenges.”