Westfield Public Schools is partnering with two outside organizations, River Valley Counseling and Rick’s Place, which offers grief support, to give extra social and emotional support to students who need it.

Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski said he and Susan Dargie made the initial connection with River Valley Counseling, based in Holyoke, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There was a mental health concern in this country before COVID-19, which is what we were seeing, and the reason we started this partnership,” Czaporowski said. They recognized that kids who needed extra support outside of the classroom were facing long waiting lists to see counselors.

Czaporowski said he thinks social media has negatively affected people, and now the stress and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic have made it worse. “And a lot of people lost loved ones. There are over 800,000 dead in the U.S.,” Czaporowski added.

Before COVID-19, the arrangement with River Valley provided easier access to counseling for students outside of school, getting them appointments before and after school which would be billed through a family’s insurance.

During the pandemic, with the help of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding, the district added eight counselors of its own to help address the mental health needs of students, and expanded its partnership with River Valley Counseling, which has placed clinicians in each of the schools.

Susan Dargie said the partnership doesn’t mean that students won’t still see their school counselors, both individually and in small groups, but she said it will help the district to offer a multi-tiered system of support with additional weekly therapy available.

Dargie said the River Valley clinicians are in the schools all day long. Referral to River Valley is made by a school counselor and the principal, who contact parents and let them know that the service, which is paid for through insurance, is available if the parent agrees.

“The other really great thing, we were able to use some of our ESSER funds, so that for students whose insurance isn’t accepted, the School Department has available funds to subsidize the counseling,” Dargie said.

She said the school program is beneficial.

“River Valley hires clinicians for the schools. The person almost becomes a part-time staff member — they’re in the building one or two days a week, which removes the barriers for parents to get their students to counseling, and transportation is not a worry,” Dargie said, adding, “It’s very hard to get appointments outside of the school day. This removes barriers, and removes the barrier of wait lists, which can be six months or longer.”

River Valley Counseling also recently set up an office in the Westwood Building at 94 N. Elm St., its first in Westfield.

“It has really been amazing how well the system works. The communication between River Valley and the schools is excellent. They have been able to provide needed support for students and families across all the schools,” Dargie said.

Dargie said if parents are interested in having their student referred for counseling to River Valley Counseling, they can contact the school counselor or administrator.

Another new partnership the district is about to start is with Rick’s Place, a non-profit grief counseling center established after 9/11 in Wilbraham, which had been looking to expand across the river.

Dargie said Westfield formerly had a grief counselor who led groups for students who suffered the loss of a family member or loved one, but since that person left, the district has been looking for a way to meet that need.

The Rev. Dan Paluchuk of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in Westfield approached the superintendent about the need for the services offered by Rick’s Place, and then brought Chief Executive Officer Theresa Ross for a meeting with Dargie and the district’s new social emotional learning coordinator, Donna Mendonca.

“The grief groups are going to be happening. We will be providing training during the next professional development day on March 11. Any educator can take this session on how to support students who are grieving,” Dargie said, adding, “We know that there are certain things that are going to be more supportive and helpful to them. This gift from the church to Rick’s place is going to benefit our students now and in the future through the ‘train the trainer’ model, and counselors will get more intensive training on how to run grief groups.”

Dargie said eventually, Westfield schools won’t need the support, but this year, Rick’s Place will co-facilitate the effort. Groups will consist of six to 12 students who have experienced loss. She said developmentally, students’ needs change, and those who need the support can be in any grade level.

Dargie said the district offered the program to all the schools, and will start implementing groups at Westfield High School, Westfield Middle School, Westfield Intermediate School and Munger Hill Elementary School.

“Our goal is to have them at all of the schools. We’ll start with this through the funds provided by Rick’s Place,” she said.

“We are very appreciative of the partnerships. River Valley Counseling has been able to put a counselor in all of our schools. I think this is important just because we are seeing some of the social emotional issues our students are having — a lot of them from remote learning and having to be isolated for a year and a half,” Czaporowski said.