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After the COVID-19 pandemic sent schools remote in March 2020, students in public schools have oscillated between in-person and distance learning as cases ebbed and flowed.

Now, on the cusp of the third school year impacted by the pandemic, administrators at the St. Cloud school district are preparing for an in-person start with additional staff to address the "disengagement and downright trauma" experienced throughout the pandemic, said Laurie Putnam, assistant superintendent of secondary education. "Not a single one of us knows how our kids are going to show up," she said. "Our kids have missed out on a lot of their childhood, their education."

The result, Putnam said, is an anticipated increase in students with depression, anxiety and even anger — so the district is being proactive.

St. Cloud schools will have two new school resources officers contracted through the St. Cloud Police Department — for a total of seven St. Cloud officers — to staff the district's two high schools and two middle schools.

The additional officers aren't in response to increased fights or bullying; the number of student disciplinary actions actually was fewer than normal last spring when students returned to in-person learning.

But they're another resource to help students deal with mental health concerns or harassment issues, according to Shannon Avenson, director of student services for the district.

The most prominent issue that students experienced last school was disengagement, likely caused by the transition from in-person to distance learning and other mental health concerns exacerbated by the pandemic.

The district has more than a dozen in-school therapists from Greater Minnesota Family Services, which provides individual and group counseling in schools in central and southwestern Minnesota. The counselors continued to provide mental health services throughout the summer to help with the fall transition.

Also this year, the district is adding a fourth chemical health counselor, three additional counselors, two additional nursing positions and a public health coordinator who will help with contact tracing and "make sure that our kids are immunized appropriately,"said Carol Potter, executive director of student services and special education.

The new positions are funded mostly through additional pandemic-related money from the state, Potter said.

Training also plays an important role in helping staff and students respond to pandemic stressors.

All staff are trained in social and emotional learning techniques, including trauma-informed programs and suicide prevention.

"We know that the best way we can support students is by supporting our staff and really being intentional about the work we do with our staff," Avenson said.

Another initiative that's proved valuable in addressing mental health concerns and keeping students in school is the use of support rooms, which are set up in every school.

"It is a room for students who need a proactive or even a reactive break, a calm place for them to go and get themselves to a place where they can be back in the classroom and learning," Avenson said.

"We have trained staff and the rooms are designed to be calming and help kids reset."

The district also is providing additional staff training this year before the start of school on Sept. 9.

"We're all very cognizant that our focus has to be on everyone's mental health," Potter said.

"We all have to be focused on taking care of each other, and we really have to have the mantra that we're in this together."

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299

Twitter: @bergjenny