At Houston Archway Academy, which cares for 50 students recovering from substance use disorders, counseling sessions are essentially on-call. Students can always ask for support if they are experiencing a panic attack, or if they feel overwhelmed or angry. Combined with a close sense of community, this is what makes the school successful, says Executive Director Sasha Coles.
After COVID-19 put the academics online, Coles and her staff set out. When the students called, the counselors drove to their homes and held meetings in driveways and porches. Despite the masks and social distancing, for some students it was a better therapy alternative than Zoom.
“I don’t think we understood, at least initially, that not providing personal service would change the really important dynamic in our school, the magical parts of the school, the community,” she says. “I have children who make me fall apart, so I try to coordinate with parents: ‘How can we meet your children’s mental health needs?'”
Recovery high schools are specially equipped to help students stay sober. In addition to typical academic classes and extracurricular activities, they provide peer support groups, licensed counselors, drug testing, and other accountability measures.
A 2017 Vanderbilt University study of convalescence colleges found that 62 percent of students met criteria for an alcohol abuse diagnosis and 93 percent met criteria for a substance addiction diagnosis.
This shows what Andrew Warren, a recovery coach, sees when students enter the Archway Academy. Marijuana and alcohol are the most common substances they recover from, although a small number have used intravenous drugs or pain relievers. Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses they face, he says.
By and large, researchers found these schools to be effective. On average, the students said they had used significantly fewer drugs and alcohol when the researchers checked in with them six months later. They reported nine days of marijuana in the past 90 days, compared to 55 days of marijuana use before starting treatment. The consumption of alcohol and other drugs fell to a maximum of three days in the past 90 days. And students attending convalescence college were more likely to stay sober and attend school than a control group of substance use disorder students attending other schools.
But COVID-19 has significantly improved the model – a unique hurdle to recovery for high schools whose students were struggling with crises before the pandemic.
“There are cases where we have a child who makes sustained recovery, but we usually get calls because the parents tried everything they could think of,” says Coles. “And we will be the place where they last exert themselves. ”
Balance between service and security
Convalescence schools are currently divided into roughly three-thirds of their delivery model. Some are completely personal, others hybrid or remote, says Roger Oser, chairman of the Association of Recovery Schools. The organization consists of 43 schools across the country that support students in grades 9 through 12 who are recovering from drug or alcohol use.
He is also the principal of William J. Ostiguy High School, one of five convalescent schools in Massachusetts that is part of a public-private partnership affiliated with Boston Public Schools. Oser says his campus has used all three models at different stages of the pandemic. It was completely removed last.
“We all try to balance the need to provide personal service with security. That equation depends on what part of the country you are in, ”he says. Our population is a priority population to be personal. So that is the challenge. What can we do in our location to get children safely into the building? “
Prior to the pandemic, Oser said, its campus and convalescent schools across the country were considering distance learning as a solution for students who were unable to be on campus due to distance or treatment.
“We have a student population who sometimes interrupted their experience due to relapse or other reasons. The more we can connect with students remotely, the greater our capacity, ”he says. “Of course we don’t want it to be controlled by COVID, but we’ve already looked at different models.”
While some students are doing fine from afar, Oser worries about those who suffer from isolation.
“In the best of times, people isolate for a variety of reasons: They don’t want to deal with people, they just cover up their use. Being away makes it so much easier, ”he says. “You can still show up, but you can’t. And it makes it harder to tell what is going on. “
Being away has encouraged its staff to make their virtual interactions with the school’s students as engaging as possible. Each day begins with a community check-in and one-on-one interviews between students and a case manager.
“It’s a lot more conscious virtually, because if someone doesn’t show up for a day, we don’t want it to go away [unremarked]. There has to be a place where this is noticed and followed up, ”he says.
Open the support system again
According to Coles, the transition to online school on their Houston campus, which works with the Southwest Schools charter district, went smoothly. However, there was no way to recreate the human element of mental health care on a screen. Important parts of the communication were lost. She couldn’t read the students’ body language or hug them.
While there was no worrying decline in academic performance, students at home experienced more temper tantrums and relapses from depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. According to Coles, more children were running away and finding it harder to refill medication because doctors’ offices were closed.
“What we learned from March through August was that we didn’t see the school mental health section as normal that we would get from isolation,” she says. “To be honest, spending time with their families was not good for anyone. It felt like total chaos. “
While most Texas public schools reopened in mid-October, the Archway Academy reopened its doors in September. The small school was divided into learning pods of no more than 10 students who lived in the same socially distant classroom, were supervised by a faculty or a staff member, and whose classes were delivered via Zoom.
Warren, who is not only a recreational coach but also an alumnus of the school, says getting students back close to their support system was important for two important reasons.
“Young people just crave this social life, and what you find in people with substance use disorders is that it couples with mental disorders,” he says. “Anyone suffering from depression or anxiety needs support or a social life.”
During a normal school year, part of building community among students would include group activities that involve closeness. That could be tug of war one day or a confidence exercise the next.
“Activities like this aren’t really feasible when there’s a virus in the air,” he says. “There’s a lot to be said about a staff member and a student who sit in a hallway and make them cry and be there for them.”
When the school closed and isolated in March, Warren said that some of his students were doing fine. They were motivated to keep track of their studies and it was enough to meet with him through Zoom. But that was not the case with everyone.
“During our daily Zoom meetings, you could say, ‘This person doesn’t feel connected. This person is not getting enough. ‘We had students who enrolled with us in early March and had no opportunity to see what our community could really do,’ he says. “In the end, we went to these students’ houses, sat in a driveway and just talked to them. Bring them treats two or three times a week as needed and interact with the families and children. That was special when you had someone ready to drive out, sit in the driveway and just be there. “
David Claunch, a math and science teacher at the academy, shares a relationship with the students as he has been in recovery for 17 years. If a student has a problem that prevents them from focusing on the class, the help of an advisor is right down the hall.
“And they come back ready for academic work,” he says.
Claunch taught remotely while in quarantine for two weeks after testing positive for COVID-19 after the Thanksgiving break. Even though he hadn’t missed a school day on Zoom, he was glad to be back in the classroom.
“It’s really easy for them to nod and say, ‘Yeah, I got it’ instead of looking at a screen. You personally learn so much more body language than you do with Zoom, ”he says.
Coles says she was concerned about the number of staff and students quarantined after Thanksgiving. If the coronavirus forced schools to learn completely virtually again, providing mental health services would remain a challenge.
“We keep exploring creative ideas on how we can do this better while keeping our health and safety in mind,” she says.
After all the changes in the school, Coles quit this year to think about how educators can better take care of themselves as they jump from one emergency to the next. Every morning she takes a deep breath before checking her text messages.
“We are a school that focuses a lot of time and energy on children’s health. Surviving last year of school showed me why adult self-sufficiency is so important, ”she says. “We run through the school year and breathe in the summer, and that can’t happen. We get sick mentally and physically because that is too much to bear. “