"At Archmere, we're really fortunate to be back in person, but I know that's not the case for a lot of students," said school counselor Francesca Pileggi. "Even with being back in person, there is still a lot of isolation this year. Students are not able to be as socially active as they might have been in the past, so that has an impact on them."
Pileggi is also Executive Director at Aevidum--a "nonprofit focused on mental health and suicide prevention in students" which has clubs present in roughly 300 other schools--and said it's more important than ever this year to provide students with an opportunity for reflection, introspection, and safety.
"[There's] just a sense of worry--about getting sick, or someone you love getting sick--so that's impacting them, and then a lot of activities that are meaningful moments for these teenagers have been canceled or postponed, and so all of that is kind of weighing on them and causing them some stress," she said. "It's a lot to absorb and we think kids are resilient--and they are--but it's just a lot going on in our culture, in our society, and that does have an impact on them."
To combat this, students get an "off day" midweek, and instead of normal classes on Wednesday, aside from Science labs, students have been offered a variety of programs and activities they can enroll in to ease their minds and "recharge" on "C-Days."
"Instead, we focus on all different kinds of physical and emotional and social health," Pileggi said. "We have opportunities for students to connect with one another, connect with teachers. We have our health curriculum. We have physical activities like mindfulness and yoga and conditioning, so the students can partake in these to kind of get a break...after having two days of school, they can recharge and reset for the final two days of the school week."
Mental health for students is just as important as academic work, and the focus on maintaining wellness helps not just now, but throughout life, she said.
"I think we really want to nurture them beyond just their academic needs," Pileggi said. "Of course this is a big challenge for them, but they're going to face other challenges in their life; so how can we help them to understand that beyond your academics, your social interactions, the way you take care of yourself emotionally, spiritually, all of that goes into making you a healthy and well person? I hope that this kind of lesson that we're learning through COVID is something that they can carry into adulthood, for other times in their life when they encounter stressful circumstances that are beyond their control."
It also expands the scope of students' awareness and provides tools for building empathy and identification.
"The lesson I'm teaching the students today is all about accepting and belonging and how do we notice someone who might not feel accepted? How do we make sure everyone here at Archmere feels like they belong? Then we will go more concretely into what warning signs might I notice in a friend and how could I help them," she said.
And so far, the lessons seems to be having a positive effect on the students, Pileggi said.
"I've been so impressed with our kids here. Of course, there's some students who I think still have a little more time to mature, and it's hard to grasp these things and it's difficult to talk about these things," she said. "Some children grow up in households where they talk about mental health all the time, others don't. So there's a learning curve to all of them but, overwhelmingly, it's been really positive. The kids have really been embracing it and participating in it."