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County, schools to convene mental health task force


Dane County Executive Joe Parisi joined several Dane County school superintendents to announce that local educational leaders will convene a task force to explore ways the community can best support the emotional and mental health needs of school kids as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to surge. The County Executive announced today he is forming a “K-12 Emotional Wellness Work Group” to advise county and school officials on strategies to help with the emotional and mental health challenges young people are currently facing.

“There’s no doubt the high rates of infection and increasing numbers of hospitalizations we are seeing would only be worse if our schools were fully open,” County Executive Parisi said in a statement. “This is a difficult trade-off, while it’s best for community public health it’s also resulted in new challenges for children, their families, and teachers. My hope is that by bringing educators and public and mental health experts together we can find ways to build off the partnerships we already have in place to improve the well-being of our young people.”

“For the families out there who want to be in school but can’t now … we want you to know that we hear you. We understand how challenging this is,” Parisi said at a press conference outside Verona High School.

“I want to thank the County Executive for understanding that this pandemic is not a one-dimensional situation,” Verona Area School District Superintendent Dean Gorrell said. “It’s not only about our physical health, but it’s also about our mental health and our social and emotional well-being.”

In the years prior to the pandemic, Dane County and 10 school districts joined forces to create a countywide school based mental health program. Known as “Building Bridges,” this initiative places teams of mental health professionals directly in schools, working with students, families and educators. Dane County allocates nearly $1 million for this program each year. Right now, this work is continuing virtually and one of the tasks of the County Executive’s new work group will be to see how the county and schools could further bolster emotional and mental health services to meet the growing acute needs seen as a result of the pandemic, according to a press release. This work could inform potential future national Covid relief dollars, should they become available in the coming weeks.

Dr Carlton Jenkins. Photo by Robert Chappell.

“We’re very concerned,” said Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Carl Jenkins. “Prior to COVID, we had a group of students who are African American, Latinx, some of our poor white children, special needs, who were having challenges, and COVID has only illuminated that. We’re just trying to do everything we can to go deeper. We’re learning. We’re learning things that we can do to try to make it better.”

Jenkins said social isolation is the most pressing mental health issue for students. He said the priority is “giving students strategies for how to manage isolation … some concrete strategies, activities to do while you’re alone.”

Jenkins said working on mechanisms to deal with isolation is important not only for students but adults, too.

“We have staff that’s working diligently to figure it out,” he said.

Work group discussions will kick off in early November and include staff from Public Health Madison & Dane County and Dane County Human Services.