‘State of the Valley’ forum tackles pandemic hurdles. Panel takes hard look at mental health needs, tech divide.

By January 19, 2021 Press, Uncategorized
Ruby Garcia at Winter Forum| Sun Valley, ID| Wood River Womens Foundation

Ruby Garcia, bilingual outreach coordinator for St. Luke’s Center for Community Health, spoke during Tuesday’s forum about challenges facing local families.

Emily Jones – Jan 17, 2021. Originally published at www.mtexpress.com.

With the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine in Blaine County, light is, finally, visible at the end of the tunnel. But as we shift into a post-pandemic world, many of the valley’s most difficult challenges—such as housing security and mental health—will have been exacerbated by the virus, and the community needs to be ready for that.

That was the core message offered up by three panelists during the Wood River Women’s Foundation’s “State of the Valley” forum, presented Tuesday evening at The Community Library in Ketchum.

“Our families have had rent deferred, mortgages deferred and car payments deferred. All of that is going to come due at some point,” said Alturas Elementary Principal Brad Henson, one of the panelists. “Our kids are considerably behind where they need to be … to bring them up to speed, the resources are going to need to be there long after the vaccination is doled out.”

Teachers and tutors will undoubtedly be one of those key resources, as students begin to make up for lost time in education and socialization, Henson said. But even as his students face unprecedented challenges, there are silver linings to celebrate.

“We’re helping our students understand how to respond to somebody’s eyes, to use their body language to communicate. It’s a constant struggle, but our students are incredibly resilient—they want to be at school. It’s their barnyard, where they’re happy,” he said.

As a dual immersion school, Alturas Elementary dedicates half the day to learning in Spanish and the other half learning in English. In the school district’s current hybrid model, half the student body—or around 200 students—are in the building at any given time, staying inside their classrooms all day while teachers transition from room to room.

The school’s COVID-19 plan is incredibly detailed. Students enter and exit through grade-level-specific doors, supervised by staff; special food trays with covers are used to keep hot lunches warm as they are delivered to each classroom; and mask breaks at recess are highly regimented. No-touch activities have replaced typical playground games to minimize sharing equipment, and many staff members have been reassigned to help teach specific grade levels.

When the school saw a shortage of bus drivers because so many were in quarantine, Henson drove a school bus for two months without hesitation. Other staff have filled in for teachers potentially exposed to the virus, sometimes for weeks at a time.

“Finding substitute teachers has been an [ongoing] struggle. Yet we have not had to quarantine the entire school because of the way we’ve really stuck to our plan, so we have a lot to be proud of,” Henson said.

One victory has been putting Chromebooks in every student’s hands for at-home learning. Deploying the laptops has come with its own set of challenges, from internet issues to language barriers.

“A lot of a lot of families just thought, ‘Well, if I have the device it’s going to connect.’ They didn’t realize they had to have a router,” Henson said.

He noted that Chromebooks have built up digital infrastructure in the community and helped strengthen the parent-teacher link. But at-home participation from parents is a lot to ask, he said, particularly when students are quarantined.

“You have parents who finally get a new job, and one thought is, ‘Oh my gosh, I just was told I have to quarantine [my child]—now I’m worried I’m going to lose my job because I have to be home with them for the next 10 days,” Henson said.

Alturas staff often serve as “middlemen” in directing families toward resources for help navigating the pandemic. One such resource is St. Luke’s Center for Community Health, located on the second floor of the Hailey St. Luke’s office.

Ruby Garcia, bilingual outreach coordinator for the center and one of Tuesday’s panelists, said she has seen “about a 70 percent increase” in referrals for financial and mental health support.

“Our office is a catch-all. We provide financial assistance from accounts like the compassionate care fund, which comes from the St. Luke’s foundation and donors, and have extended it to rent assistance,” she said. “When funds run [low], we’ll reach out to partners and donors to be able to, say, come up with $1000 worth of someone’s rent.”

Parents sometimes call the center to help their children with homework.

“Some of the families that we hear from will say, ‘If I don’t understand English, how am I going to help my child with math or even just read a math problem?’ We’re trying to teach these families to turn on their computer, and that’s about their knowledge of technology right now,” Garcia said.

She added that many popular support groups and classes offered by the center, such as its moms’ support group, have lost a bit of their personal touch as they’ve moved to virtual platforms. Some families, she said, have feared “the legal aspect” of participating online—“like, is it safe to put myself out there.” But remote connection has also meant that transportation hurdles are no longer part of the equation.

Panelist Angenie McCleary, a Blaine County commissioner, noted that the Wood River chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has been able to attract more participants, especially youths, with some of its programs online.

“[NAMI] has been able to offer mental health services to people who were struggling with transportation and not making some of their meetings. They’re actually having better attendance in some groups,” McCleary said.

When asked by moderator Jenny Emery Davidson, director of The Community Library, where the community’s attention should be directed, McCleary said rent assistance first came to mind.

“As we come out of the pandemic, one thing that will not have changed is housing costs, which are really high and have gotten higher. Rental assistance is going to have to really be something that the community focuses on,” she said.

Garcia agreed.

“But, we have a generous community that works together pretty well,” she said. “I’ve gotten phone calls from other communities, saying ‘We want to learn from you.’ That tells us we’re doing something right.”

To contact the Blaine County Charitable Fund, which helps with rental assistance, dial 208-244-5205. St. Luke’s Center for Community Health can be reached at 208-727-8733.