The principals of Manhattan High School and Anthony and Eisenhower middle schools say more mental health services are needed for students and staff members.

The trio of principals presented to Manhattan-Ogden school board members before their regular meeting Wednesday about their concerns and successes as the school year progresses.

Eisenhower Middle School principal Tracy Newell said Pawnee Mental Health counselors are meeting at the school with 10-15 students one day out of the week. He said he’s noticed his staffers and students are struggling with stress and emotional breaks stemming from the pandemic.

“We’re trying to brainstorm some things to help with that,” Newell said. “We’re still trying to get to know each other.”

Newell said his staff members are still meeting and greeting each other following the transition of 6th graders from elementary to middle schools. Newell said that transition was a “big undertaking,” but people are settling in. He said the school added “some phenomenal staff” when the transition took place before the start of the school year. Teachers from seven different elementary school buildings joined the staff of both AMS and EMS, and Newell said he meets with them each week.

“Just the overall transition has been mammoth,” Newell said.

There are 260 sixth-grade students across both middle schools this year, and Newell said he needs two open positions filled for Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) aides at the 6th grade level to help those students.

There are 722 total students enrolled at EMS, and 738 enrolled at AMS. Newell said EMS teachers have also dealt with “staggering numbers” of behavioral issues in classrooms. Newell said he’s worried about his staff.

“I can’t say how thankful I am for the staff that I have, but I’m honestly concerned about some of their social and emotional wellbeing,” Newell said.

Anthony Middle School principal Vickie Kline said she’s also worried about her staff. She said she knows her counselors and social workers are visiting with teachers and other staff members on a daily basis, but she’s concerned about the sustainability of her staff’s current workload while under pandemic-related emotional duress.

Manhattan High School principal Mike Dorst told board members that teachers and staff members have free access to an initial round of mental health services through the district. He said being available to listen and “being in tune with teachers” is the most important thing he and other administrators can do right now.

“As I’ve talked to other principals in the area, the main question is ‘How are you doing?’” Dorst said. “And you just get a look, and you know. Literally it’s the same thing everywhere we go.”

Dorst said it’s been difficult for students to readjust to daily school structure. Schools were closed for in-person activities in March 2020 when the pandemic first broke, meaning children had an extended period away from the classroom until classes resumed in a hybrid format last fall. Newell said that time away was partly the cause of the behavioral issues he’s noticed. Dorst said behavioral issues aside, students were “chomping at the bit” to return to class in-person.

Assistant superintendent Eric Reid said the student achievement gap between white and multicultural students is “even wider than before” because of the pandemic, and that gaps are being noted statewide. He said a statement of support from the board for the work teachers and staff have done to adapt to the pandemic would be “very meaningful.”

Karla Hagemeister said she wanted teachers and staff to know their efforts have not gone unnoticed.

“We need them to know we’re rooting for them, we’re here for them, and that we want the best for them,” Hagemeister said.

In other business, board members voted 5-2 to maintain the same pandemic protocols that are currently in place. Masks remain optional at MHS and district support buildings, but are still required in early learning centers, elementary and middle schools. Board members Brandy Santos and Darell Edie voted against the plan; they both continue to question the effectiveness of masks. The pandemic response plan will be reviewed again at the Dec. 15 board meeting.