Dallas ISD adds extra mental health resources for students during pandemic

Dallas ISD is dedicating extra resources to help students and their families adjust to the new school year in the midst of a pandemic.

The district is set to start the year online next week.

Along with special training for teachers and staff, the district is bringing on nearly 60 more trained professionals to help with students’ mental and emotional health as they start the new school year online.

The last school year was filled with up and downs for Alejandra Ramos-Gomez and her young students. She teaches kindergarten and first grade dual language students at Walnut Hill Elementary.

The students were uprooted from their classroom in the middle of the year after last October’s tornado in Dallas. The school was moved to another campus. Just as students were getting adjusted, the pandemic ripped them from their classroom again. 

“I teach little ones, 5, 6 years old. I know sometimes they don’t know how to express that feeling, but I know it was hard for them,” Ramos-Gomez said.

That’s part of the reason why Ramos-Gomez now starts and ends her class with a few minutes of reflection every day to help students handle the extra stress. She is thinking of different ways to cater to her students’ other needs beyond traditional subjects like math and reading.

“We’ll have a sharing circle every morning, whether it’s face to face or virtual. That’s something that’s very important to me,” Ramos-Gomez said. “We’ll always start with a breathing exercise where they know that whenever they’re feeling stressed or worried, they can always take a moment to breathe.”

Seeing the need, Dallas ISD says there’s a renewed emphasis on social emotional learning training for all teachers and staff to help recognize signs if students need more attention beyond the classroom.

“Nothing’s normal right now,” said Dianna Smoot, executive director of Dallas ISD Mental Health Services. “So the idea we would expect for things to be normal, it’s just not. And we know that students are really dealing with a lot right now.”

Dallas ISD classes will remain online-only until at least Oct. 6 with the possibility of an extension.

And to help students deal with the uncertainty of the new school year, the district is also adding 57 trained professionals to their mental health services department. The new staff includes licensed mental health professionals, like social workers and counselors.

“These are licensed clinicians. They’re going to be able to offer everything from behavior interventions, training, support at the campus level, but then also offer that ongoing therapy for our students and families who need more,” Smoot said.

They hope to get the new school year started off on the right foot as much as possible.

“It’ll take them weeks or even months and then they’ll open up, but they know that’s the space where we will listen to what they think,” Ramos-Gomez said.

Dallas ISD says they also have a dozen youth and family centers students can reach out to if they feel they need extra support.