BALTIMORE COUNTY — Several organizations teamed up last week to distribute 2,555 mental health kits to around 8,000 students who stoped doing school work and communicating with their teachers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools, United Way of Central Maryland, and the Michael Phelps Foundation created and donated the kits in an effort to reengage these students and better support their families who cut all ties with the school system after classes switched to remote learning.

“They have kind of fallen off. They have not been doing any digital learning and they have not been seen,” Beth Littrell, Director of Community Engagement and Volunteerism for United Way said while assembling the kits at Carver Center for the Arts last week.

“Houses have been visited and they can’t find the students. They have completely shut off contact.”

Littrell said many of the students who haven’t been heard from are from bilingual families who speak English as a second langue.

“For a lot of students, English is their second language and their parents may not have understood what was happening. So there is a big effort in place to make sure those families understand why it’s happening and what is happening.”

When asked about how BCPS is working to better communicate with bilingual students and families, Brandon Oland, Communications Specialist for Baltimore County Public Schools said the school system has gone to great lengths to support all of their families.

“We have provided 1.5 million meals for students who need them since March. We have made free hotspots available for families struggling with internet access. We have provided as many families as possible with the technology they need,” Oland said.

“The Education Foundation’s recent work to provide supplies for families who need them is just the latest example. We had policies and procedures in place to check in with families who we had not heard from during emergency continuity of education in the spring. Those same efforts to reach out to families have, and will, continue. This includes school administrators personally reaching out to families.”

Having been a teacher herself, Littrell knows that one of the best ways to help a student in the classroom is to help those student’s families who might be going through tough times.

“We have found that the families who are not engining with the school, there are underlying issues to that. Whether it’s unemployment, or they moved, or there is emotional distress related to COVID. These tool kits are aimed at helping the family get healthier and get their children reengaged in the school,” Littrell said.

The tool kits consist of Michael Phelps Foundation’s IM Healthy emotional health lessons, United Way’s 2-1-1 call line for people to receive help with any life changes they are undergoing, as well as resources to use in Baltimore County to help reengage their children in school. Stress balls, figit spinners, jump ropes and mindfulness journals are also included to help students boost their mental health.

Littrell said United Way has seen an increase in people calling in to their office with mental health related issues since the start of the pandemic. So, when Debbie Phelps, Executive Director of the Education Foundation of Baltimore County, contacted Littrell and said BCPS students and families were having mental health issues as well, Littrell was eager to partner with the foundation to create the mental health kits.

“We thought we have to do more. We got these kits together really quickly because the kits will be distributed by the school’s principals at a re-engagement program [ this week],” Littrell said.

Littrell said United Way will continue to help BCPS students by holding a book and school supply drive for the Education Foundation of Baltimore County. More students will also receive these mental health tool kits to help them while they do online learning until January.

“We are going to start with these 2,500 for the kids that need them the most. The ultimate goal is to get one to every student,” Littrell said.

“Once we started talking about the mental health issues, a lot of different partners stepped up and said they wanted to be a part of this. We are offering this as an additional funding opportunity for corporations. If they want to fund this with a grant, then we can get these out to more students,” Littrell said.

Phelps said in addition to the metal health kits, the Education Foundation will continue to support students, their families and educators through their RISE (Relief In Securing Education) for a Brighter Future program, and through the two teacher resource centers, one at The Avenue at White Marsh and one in Windsor Mill, where teachers can receive free supplies for their students and classrooms.

“We support our teachers and students with resources that are not supplied by taxes and the resources inside the kits align with the content from Michael’s (her son’s), foundation. The kits are in reference to our social and emotional learning component in the school district,” Phelps said.

“Our children have needs. People feel sometimes that in public education there are not needs due to tax dollars but [ the children’s needs] go beyond that.”

People who wish to volunteer their time to help BCPS with their school supply drive or volunteer at either of the Exchangeree locations, visit www.educationfoundationbcps.org/tools-for-schools-on-line-registration.

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