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Social workers address needs of BCS students, families

Starr Odom’s first year as a social worker with Beaufort County Schools has been anything but ordinary.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Odom and social work team members Laurel Miller and Belinda Cowell have had to take unusual measures to safely interact with students and families.

“It’s a lot of phone calls and standing out in their front yard, trying to talk with them that way, just so we can be as spaced out as possible,” Odom said.

Those methods are necessary but not always ideal.

“The biggest advantage to school social workers going to see families is being able to go and sit down in their living room and get comfortable with them,” said Miller, the school system’s mental health coordinator. “And then we’re able to talk with them about what’s going on.  Most of the time we can get a lot of good information that way, and it’s just not the same when you’re talking to people on their front porch.”

Home visits and check-ins represent a small portion of what school social workers do. They help students find resources and work through a wide range of issues. Sometimes they’re helping a family get internet access or find gadgets they need for remote learning. In other cases, they’re helping make arrangements with counselors or therapists for students who need those services. Through Bright Futures of Beaufort County and other partners, the social workers help families find things they need to help their children succeed — everything from school supplies to beds to appliances.

There are also long-term issues they deal with as well, such as helping families find utility bill assistance or finding solutions for truancy cases.

As of Thursday, approximately 150 students across the district’s 14 schools were actively receiving social work services.  To date, the social work team has dealt with about 330 cases throughout the 2020-21 school year.

MENTAL HEALTH
The social work team has seen an increase in mental health referrals stemming from the pandemic.

“We see a lot of kids now that, without the contact of their school family, they are struggling with issues of depression,” Miller said.

“We’ve seen more kids just become disengaged from education,” Cowell added. “A lot of kids need that one-on-one, that chance to connect with a teacher or a peer or whoever and they’re home alone or they’re home with their siblings. … It’s definitely taking a toll.”

Many students in the district have adapted well to remote learning, but others have not.  The social workers decide what services students need on a case-by-case basis.

“One thing I’ll say is if a child has a good relationship with their school, they can have that virtually (as well), Miller said. “I see teachers all the time who are doing a great job of checking on kids, who are connecting with them, even though it is just over a computer.”

COMMUNITY SUPPORT

The school system’s social workers say support from the community has been particularly crucial during the pandemic.

A lot of support continues to flow in through the local chapter of Bright Futures, which is a partnership between the school system and the Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce.

“A big part of our job is communication with outside agencies, and this year has been awesome — a lot of the community has stepped up and helped us in ways that we really needed,” Odom said.

“We couldn’t do what we do without the support of the community,” Miller said. “There’s no way we can meet all these needs if the people of Beaufort County weren’t so great about donating to us and supporting us.”

The social workers say meeting those needs is what makes the hard days worth it.

“You can see those little successes,” Cowell said, “and that’s what keeps you going.”