Social workers fight for student engagement


The Social Worker Office Suite at the Chelsea High School.

By Anibal Santiago

The social workers and counselors at Chelsea High School spent years prepping for any traumatic event to occur, only to be faced with major roadblocks when the coronavirus pandemic hit Chelsea.

A team of eight professionals attend to the mental health needs of 1,402 students and counting. With about 200-plus students per staff member, the team quickly realized they were outnumbered once programs transferred online.

Two weeks before the pandemic officially hit Chelsea, before schools were mandated to close; teachers, support staff and deans were voicing their opinions to management to share the projected plan. As information was developing nation-wide and within the state, the high school employees were forming their own opinions and creating potential plans. But without having the power to implement any plans, it was their duty as passionate education leaders to voice them; not only for the sake of their own jobs but for the vulnerability they knew existed for the students and the community.

“We needed to have a plan but felt as if they were annoyed by us complaining,” said Kate Vigil, the Lead Social Worker at Chelsea High School.

On Thursday, March 12, Chelsea schools were ordered to complete the school day and not return until notified. Teachers and other faculty left all their belongings, including equipment and files crucial to complete their duties. But since it was framed as a cleaning day, they figured they will be back at school on the Monday that followed.

“Over the intercom, you can sense the panic. It sounded like yelling for everyone get out and go!” said Vigil.

The mental health department knew they had to approach the situation as orderly as they could, to achieve the best possible outcome. There was an unsaid three phase approach the team took.

“We knew what was at stake for our students, so we thought of what’s the most, most, most important thing first and go from there,” said Marcella, a counselor at Chelsea High School.

Phase 1: The staff monitored the disbursement and the retrieval of all laptops and hot spots. This was important to continue utilizing their internal software called, “Remind,” that worked like a scheduler and note documenter of all meetings with students. The case load remained the same for each staff member in the department, but the workload almost doubled.

“We have been as busy as we would have been in school, if not busier,” said Marcella.

Phase 2: Once the students were given the proper equipment, the staff assisted to help activate it all. Many of these interactions required step by step troubleshooting from staff that was supposed to be monitoring mental health.

“A lot of our students didn’t even have WiFi prior to receiving the hot spots, so once we noticed the deeper issues that lived in the community, we knew we had to do more,” said Marcella.

Phase 3: This is when the staff was finally able to get back to their assigned duties as social workers and counselor. This took weeks for this point to arrive, all while the numbers in Chelsea, from confirmed corona virus cases, to deaths were doubling by the day. The staff began to schedule counseling sessions, assist with college planning, and help with homework if it was requested by the student.

“Our staff would send out a message once or twice a week to remind kids of mindfulness and mental health,” said Marcella, adding that it was used as a remainder but also as a way to get students to engage. “We wanted to know everything that was happening but there was only so much we can do before crossing boundaries,” said Marcella.

Although the staff was concerned about crossing boundaries or being too pushy, the students were easily shifting the staffs work schedule and affecting their mental health as they awaited engagement.

“An issue has been setting boundaries with the kids, with messaging at 8 pm and 9 pm at night. Our normal schedule went from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 or 4 p.m. to this night shift we weren’t used to,” said Marcella.

But alongside connecting with the students the staff desperately yearned for the parent voice during such a vulnerable time. But the outdated and blank contact list from parents placed a brick wall behind the COVID-19 wall that already stood in the city.

“The parent voice and the student voice were not only missing during all of this in order to make our jobs more effective, their voices were not considered or heard during planning, decision making or future agendas,” said Vigil.

“We were getting roughly like, 60 to 70 percent engagement even if it is a quick reply on “remind” the program. It was better than what the teachers were getting, from what we’ve heard, but we wanted more, beyond work purposes, we were genuinely concerned and affected by it all too,” said Marcella.

The staff was prepared for the overload of concerns the students were going to experience or share. But it quickly put a heavy weight on the hearts of the staff once it was delivered from the student’s mouths themselves. Students overwhelmingly shared their concerns about food scarcity before they were offered EBT by the state. All families in Chelsea that qualified, were able to receive EBT benefits that provided them with state funds to purchase food.

“I received messages from students saying they were bored, needed structure, and communication. And then some parents were telling me they ‘see their kids on the laptop all the time so they must be doing homework and engaging’,” said Jasleen Anandm an ELL Bridge Teacher.

The National Guard was called in to the city to supply Chelsea families with a fixed amount of food in a box. To receive the free goods, families were lined up outside of the Salvation Army on Chestnut Street, six feet apart, fully covered from head to toe, from 6 a.m. until the line started at 8 a.m.

“We were staying up to date ourselves with the news, so we knew the severity of the situation in Chelsea and knew our students and their families were in those lines every day. All we could do was reach out and hope to provide emotional assistance and guidance, but most importantly provide answers to any uncertainty,” said Marcella.

The list of concerns shared by students included failure to pay rent because of job loss in the family, if they are going to graduate, if they are passing to the next grade.

Worries pile up as the staff finished off the current school year and question the next one. There are three options to choose to determine what the new year will look like for staff and students. One, full on in-class engagement, a hybrid of in-class and online, and complete remote till there is a vaccine.

“We are craving that human interaction. There are so many things that are so much harder, kids are less likely to engage with us and not show their face if they’re sad and depressed,” said Marcella.

Marcella shared her experience with her students via Zoom and how it limits her. Some students will engage with the staff with just the audio function, not video. Therefore, the staff expressed the blindness they are faced with to observe those indicators of depression, abuse, and true emotion beyond the words. Marcella said these important factors are missed by not having the personal interaction.

“I’m nervous that the families that lost lives will then influence kids to possibly drop out due to having to go to work to support their family because they have to prioritize work over school,” said Marcella.

About Anibal Santiago 4 Articles
Anibal Santiago earned his BA degree in Communication at the University of Massachusetts and followed up with a MA degree in Journalism from Emerson College. With his experience as an Entertainment Reporter in Los Angeles, he hopes to take his career to the next level in broadcasting.