Onteora considers mental health days for students

The Onteora Board of Education is considering allowing all students to have in-school mental health days as they adjust to a year of full-time in-person learning after COVID-19 forced them into working through computer screens for at least a year and a half.

Board of Education President Kevin Salem said it’s been on the trustees’ radar for more than two years since learning Bennett Elementary School had quarterly mental health days for students. Trustee Emily Sherry raised the issue recently after noting her son became a bit overwhelmed and stayed home from high school. When she sent in the note excusing her son and calling it a mental health day, the administration said it would be an unexcused absence.

“People do feel pressure to get through everything that has to be taught, but I think as part and parcel of it, we’re looking to say, is there a way we can structure a time or a day where we all take a breath, maybe it’s a time to reflect or catch up — because I know that some teachers actually build to that into their instructional delivery,” Interim Superintendent Marystephanie Corsones said at the December 7 school board meeting.

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The administration is trying to figure out how to support the students, while at the same time complying with the number of instructional minutes required by state law. “In the past, I’ve actually been critical of the Board of Education in our discussion about homework, for example, and I just want to make sure that we don’t frame all of these discussions in terms of what we lose by granting people a little bit of a break,” Salem said. “I think this isn’t purely for students. Particularly for teachers, a cell phone or working on the computer or remote work started as a sort of technological capability, a trick of technology, and it’s become this sort of expectation that everyone is available and working all the time. And so my personal thoughts about this aren’t just centered on the students, it’s centered on the staff, too.”

Trustee Laurie Osmond agreed. “I think that this really comes into the area of self care, and encouraging staff and teaching students the importance of self care and of boundaries. But when you simply need to take a break, just imagine stress level, and your health — your mental health as well as your physical health,” Osmond said. “And I also feel like this discussion plays into the idea of legal versus illegal absences because a mental health day is…I would be of the mind that it would be considered a sick day,” Osmond said. 

Trustee Valerie Storey said she thinks it’s a good idea, but is concerned about implementation. “How are we going to do this? As it was already mentioned, you need X amount of hours or minutes to sit for your science tests, for the labs; there’s X amount of hours you need to complete for the Regents, so how do we do that? And how do we tell our teachers? Are we mandating it this year? Then how many days are we taking away from,” she asked. “Doesn’t New York State SED (state Education Department) tell us what’s a legal absence and what’s an illegal absence?”

Corsones said the language was changed to excused and unexcused and there is a definition, “although it does have some leeway with it.”

Salem clarified the mental health days wouldn’t be days off from school. “I think this is an in-school sanctioned mental health day that we’re talking about,” he said. “They are meant to be a boundary setting tool that is a boundary against burnout. That’s my understanding of it.”

He said the structuring of the in-school mental health days would be up to the educators and administrators.

Corsones said she will discuss it with administrators and come back to the board.