A school counselor and social worker at William H. Owen Elementary School in North Carolina have set up virtual “lunch bunch” meetings with students to help them retain some interaction and normalcy through COVID-19.
(TNS) — When the little faces pop on the screen every weekday from 11:30 to 12:30, there's no telling what the conversation might bring.
Sometimes there might be a game of "would you rather." Maybe someone will sing. They might hit on deeper topics like race.
Group facilitators Tanisha Dumas and Thomas Edwards let the conversation flow.
It's the kids' lunchtime after all.
"Sometimes it's like, what do you want to talk about?" Dumas, Owen's school counselor, said. "Because I don't want it to always seem like, 'Oh, you know, I'm still in class.' Because it's lunch. You know, when you're in the cafeteria, you talk about anything."
In a year that's upended the lives of kids nationally, staff members in Cumberland County Schools have tried to make the abnormal a little more normal. At W.H. Owen, that normally comes in the form of Lunch Bunch, run by Dumas and W.H. Owen social worker Edwards, which is geared at giving kids the social interaction they need.
Health care workers at Cape Fear Valley Health system have seen the impact on children. John Bigger, the system's corporate director for behavioral health and sleep services, says they seen an increase in the number of children aged 4-17 seeking services for socialization needs.
Bigger said they range from them not being able to learn social norms the same way they could in a classroom and the ability to interact with other children.
When the pandemic closed down the schools, Dumas said the teachers found out at the same time as everyone else.
"I'm more of an optimist, so I feel like all you can do is go with what you have, and work with what you have," she said.
In the following weeks, all Cumberland schools launched into making sure the kids and parents had the mental health resources they needed in the transition. The school system set up a 24-hour hotline that school counselors, social workers and psychologists helped run.
One of the things staff members at W.H. Owen did was send out a survey to the students. They also wanted to meet with students during lunch time. Edwards and Dumas set up groups, and even outside those groups, kids kept setting up meetings with each other.
Connection, Dumas and Edwards decided, was what they needed. Then, Virtual Lunch Bunch was born.
It was a non-virtual thing before the pandemic even started. Edwards and Dumas worked their way through the classes and grade levels, inviting five or six students at a time into their offices to eat lunch. It became a question among students of when their turn would be.
Now that it's virtual, Dumas, who got special access to send out emails to the entire school, sends out a message with the link to Lunch Bunch every morning. In turn, it'll show up on student calendars.
Virtual school made Lunch Bunch's reach bigger. Edwards and Dumas can see faces as young as 5 and as old as 11. Dumas said she's seen up to 40 or 50 kids in a group at a time, and occasionally she'll see 20 to 25. Once, only a few students showed up.
"We go with who we have," Dumas said. "If there's only one person that will show up, we will be on there for that one person."
"For the entire time," Edwards added.
And on the screen during that hour of lunch, there have been spots of joy. Once Dumas played music while giving the students 30 seconds to bring something they love on screen. Though it was expected they'd bring a toy or stuffed animal, five students, she said, brought a parent or sibling.
Some days, they'll pick a topic and discuss friendships or favorite colors.
Dumas has seen parents dance in kitchens in the background as Lunch Bunch played music. She'll remind the students to make sure they're eating, and hold her water bottle up to the screen to remind them to stay hydrated.
In a Black History Month discussion, they decided to learn about soul musician Sam Cooke. Afterward, one student serenaded the class.
Dumas' most prominent memory is when a kindergartener came on and knew how to spell his name. He did it for the group and was met by applause, and emojis in the chat.
Sometimes, three or four kids will be logged on from one household and they have to be asked to mute their microphones due to the feedback.
"This is a time for socialization for kids, and they love being around other kids," Edwards said. "And that's kind of what this lunch bunch has grown to, to give them an opportunity to say, you know what, even though I was in my class today and I got to see them, that was work. Now I'm gonna have a little play, a little fun, where I can do something different and just, you know, talk to other people."
Dumas said they started out with groups. When Dumas started Lunch Bunch, Edwards' boys stopped showing up, instead popping into Dumas' group.
"They love Ms. Dumas," he said.
In October, they discussed bullying, which turned to a conversation about race.
"Because they open up that door, we wanted to embrace those topics, but we use it as an opportunity to say, you know, it's so important for us to appreciate the differences that we have in each other," Dumas said. "So I know that for us, that has really been a way for us to connect with a lot of our kids."
In addition to Lunch Bunch, Edwards and Dumas have done individual counseling and grief groups. During the Virtual Lunch Bunch, they've found innovative ways to help the students. Once, they played a game where they had to decide what was a healthy coping skill, signaling either a thumbs up or thumbs down on the screen.
Dumas said she knows the pandemic's affected kids, but she says at Owen, they've done what they can to try to help.
"When I'm getting phone calls from parents and say, you know what, I'm really glad that you guys are going to ... continue ... the virtual lunch bunch during Plan B, you know what that says to me?" Dumas said. "We're doing something right."
Dumas said regardless of whether they're in the building or out, the students are still dealing with mental health issues and household dynamics. While they're doing what they can, Edwards acknowledged being virtual came with its gaps.
He said he's seen fewer kids come through with issues simply because they aren't right there with them. It's tough to tell how kids are feeling and reacting through a screen, and when kids are hungry at school, someone can pick up on it and let Edwards know, he said. Being away from the kids means lack of control in certain situations, though Edwards said they'll make reports if they hear something that warrants it.
"Being able to physically kind of look at the kid and see what's going on or a teacher saying, 'Hey, this is what's going on. He didn't get to eat this morning. Can we help?' That's why I say it's less just because you don't have that physical interaction where you can, you know, physically see the kid to kind of pick up on what's going on with them,"" Edwards said.
Dumas has her finger on the pulse of self help at W.H. Owen Elementary. She helped create district-wide social emotional learning tools to be shown at schools, and at W.H. Owen, she said, they're shown faithfully.
They're also known to do check-ins through Google Forms. Dumas said each school has a form with options to have either the school social worker, counselor or psychologist reach out. Students don't need to have a problem to reach out either. They can check a box that says they just want to say hello.
Dumas said they'll make calls and send emails to kids who don't show up to Lunch Bunch. Edwards might do a drive by a student's house if he has concerns.
He'll go to the neighborhoods of kids he hasn't seen and sit outside houses to check for movement. Another time, three children stopped showing up to school for a month and they couldn't contact them because their phone number had changed.
One trip in the car later, Edwards found them walking the neighborhood with their father. Next thing he knew, they were back in school.
For Edwards and Dumas, it's about going by what they feel and trusting it. They have to remind each other to take care of themselves, Dumas said, similar to the way a flight attendant tells airline passenger to act in an emergency.
"One of the things, and we even did this with our staff, put your own oxygen mask on first before you try to take care of somebody else," Dumas said.
Dumas might put on worship music or a video of someone preaching as she does her work. She'll pick up books or learn more about diversity and equity. She loves Hallmark movies, especially during Christmas time.
Edwards, on the other hand, loves to bake. Legend says he makes a mean banana pudding, at least Dumas thinks so, who gave an enthusiastic thumbs up at its mention. In the job, Edwards said it's hard to not bring work home.
"Long story short is we all need a little more help trying to back it up and take care of each other, but we are very mindful about reminding each other that hey, you know, let it go," Edwards said. "Turn that computer off. Don't turn it on this weekend, so you can just, you know, be you and enjoy yourself."
Edwards is grateful for he and Dumas' working relationship. The pair started their jobs within weeks of each other at W.H. Owen in 2019, and have been in the thick of it all right along side each other since. Edwards calls Dumas his "battle buddy."
"We've had each other's back and we just go through it, and we just figure it out," Edwards said.
Even as schools transitioned to Phase B last week, virtual Lunch Bunch stayed at the request of the students, even though some students were coming back to the classroom and others weren't. One third-grader who opted to stay virtual said they needed to force teachers to come to Lunch Bunch.
The new year comes with a whole new realm of possibilities, and Dumas said she's thankful for technology, which has given her more tools to help the students.
She said she'll keep doing what she has been: "Building relationships, one kid at a time."
And they'll continue to check in with each other, and maybe Edwards will share banana pudding.
(c)2021 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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