Finishing her second semester of her junior year at South San High School, Natalie Moncada is a self-described social butterfly. She is an early college high school student, involved in a religious group, Mathletes, Enrichment Club, and the school’s new mental health advisory board that helps inform the efforts of the Care Zone.

Moncada loves her friends from school and enjoys her extracurriculars, but under campus closures mandated by coronavirus, she’s overwhelmed and feeling anxious.

The junior is confined to her home on San Antonio’s South Side and struggling to keep up with multiple assignments that often are due on the same day.

“I’m very, very overwhelmed,” she said. “I know there was a lot of work and everything was due yesterday, and I still have stuff to do. I’m passing, but to me that’s not enough.”

The work is always hard – the early college program often attracts students up for a challenge – but now Moncada doesn’t have the option to stay after school. While she normally would stay on campus until everything was done, she now has to complete it at home, where family matters can divide her attention.

Moncada is considering exiting the early college program as a result. For a while, she was holding it together. But when a favorite teacher called Moncada a week ago to check in, she finally broke down.

Moncada doesn’t have the coronavirus and isn’t feeling physically sick, but she’s one of many students who will likely be impacted by the pandemic far after daily presidential briefings stop and journalists turn to cover other newsworthy events. And in areas of town where there was already a dearth of resources to address mental health, the additional mental health concerns could be compounded.

“We’re going to have a lot of work on our hands when we get back,” South San ISD behavior specialist Susan Arciniega predicted.

This past year, Arciniega worked with South San students and community partners to stand up the Care Zone, a mental health resource collaborative on the campus of Athens Elementary. The partners and other South San mental health employees have been offering online services and telehealth, and it’s been busy, Arciniega said.

South San ISD Behavior Specialist Susan Arciniega (right) meets with South San High School students last October. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

School is often an escape for children, and without that outlet, preexisting anxiety and depression could grow and new mental wellness concerns could develop, mental health professionals told the Rivard Report.

For Madisyn Donovan, a senior at South San High School, days at home can make nurturing her mental health a struggle.

“You have to constantly push yourself to get out of bed and find something to do, even if there is nothing to do,” she said. “Like go take a shower, try to cook something, just stay away from bed, because I feel like now that you have to stay at home, it is so easy to fall into that pit of just emptiness and it’s hard.”

Typically, Donovan’s coping method has been spending time with close friends. So with limited options, Donovan has been gardening, reading new books, and watching “all of Netflix.”

Madisyn Donovan is a member of South San High School’s Enrichment Club, which advocates for solutions to student problems.
Madisyn Donovan. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A high school junior, who wanted to be identified as J, is struggling to find downtime to take care of her own stress. She still has to go to work at a fast-food job to support herself and her mother. Up until recently, a family member with schizophrenia was living with the two, and J didn’t feel safe sleeping at night.

Between working five to seven hours each day, homework needing to be done, and an unsafe home environment, J seldom had a few hours to rest. And when that time was available, J worried what she would do if her family member became aggressive.

All J wanted to do was to see her best friend, but that friend lived too far away to visit during stay-at-home orders.

“My stress level is through the roof. Through the roof,” J said. “I try not to stress about it now, but when you’re running off of three or four hours of sleep and you have to write three or four pages for different classes and then you’re trying to stay up until 5 a.m. doing algebra and your brain is only running off a couple hours of sleep and you just got off work, so you smell like fries, it’s a lot.”

Maritza Garcia-Pulido is one of Communities in Schools’ licensed professional counselors attempting to help students in the area manage this kind of stress. Communities in Schools, a national nonprofit focused on providing community resources to students, serves 12 local districts including East Central, Harlandale, North East, Northside, San Antonio, South San, and Southwest ISDs.

Garcia-Pulido has scheduled telehealth appointments with people already on her caseload and makes it a point to check in with family members as well as the students she’s regularly in touch with.

One of her students told Garcia-Pulido of the extra anxiety she was feeling. Together, the two worked together to identify the triggers for the student’s feelings and create a routine that would provide more structure and empowerment.

In the sessions since campuses shut down, Garcia-Pulido has noticed a shift in the way kids are perceiving their world. For some of her students, home isn’t a safe space, and the current situation can exacerbate anxiety or depression.

“I’m hoping to take on a couple more families, but honestly some of the kids that I thought were going to be ready to discharge soon aren’t, because this just threw a whole new curveball at them,” Garcia-Pulido said.

Anticipating an increased need for mental health services, many school districts and community organizations have offered hotlines for students to call and have directed counselors to reach out. Communities in Schools is working to contact each of their families, sending emails, texts, phone calls, and even letters to get in touch.

Arciniega has been working with students to identify the elements of the situation that are in their control. Then she works to help find ways to deal with added stress. Students learn breathing exercises and can pick up art kits to create a physical manifestation of their emotions. Breaking this experience into little steps is key, she added.

Managing the current situation is important, Communities in Schools of San Antonio CEO Jessica Weaver said. The next step is preparing for the aftereffects that will come when students return to a more normal schedule.

“Kids will kind of do what they need to do in whatever circumstance they are in,” Weaver said. “My concern is there will be another layer later on that will unravel. I think that we’re going to see the effects of that later.”

Are you an educator or do you have a student in your home who now has to learn remotely?

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.