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Back to School at Galileo – Tips to Improve our Students’ Mental Health During Covid-19

Montreal - Saturday, September 26, 2020

By Lisa Trotto and Felicia Nardolillo

The return to school amidst a global pandemic is riddled with unanswered questions, uncertainties and anxiety. At Galileo Adult Education Centre in Montreal North, our special needs learners were pulled from the classroom mid-March and quickly adapted to learning in a virtual classroom setting. Adaptation was certainly at the forefront for our Galileo staff and students. Although we have all been through a lot, we are happy to announce that our doors are now open, and we have welcomed back 95 percent of our student body. Close to 150 Social Integration Services (SIS) students are back at school doing what they love – learning and growing together. Only a small group of students with underlying health issues have not returned to the classroom just yet. Luckily, they can join us virtually and while they are not physically present in the classroom, they still feel a sense of belonging through the online platforms that keep us connected.

Our Sociovocational Integration Services (SVIS) program has welcomed back 42 students who are eager to get back into the workforce. We are fortunate that our students will soon be able to continue learning valuable work skills through their work placement stages at our partner companies. Fortunately, all our partners provide a safe environment for our students since they are following Santé Public’s guidelines rigorously (in conjunction with the school procedures). Thus, we will be able to continue our esteemed program that has truly helped build our students’ confidence and celebrate their progress along the way to a job.

SIS and SVIS students have been doing an incredible job following the new school rules. Mask and visor-wearing along with daily temperature checks, regular hand washing, and sanitizing have become part of our routine. Classes have been modified and the SIS students remain in their classroom “bubbles.” Our educators have been doing a fantastic job preserving the quality of education for our students and ensuring they are benefiting from our diversified program.

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Even though students are not rotating to different classrooms, they are still enjoying all the classes they are accustomed to (book club, expressive art, culinary studies, soap making, etc.). Students are so grateful that they are not missing out on the curriculum and still engaging in all their favourite classes. Our students cannot socialize with one another as they used to; however, we have shifted our mindset and are now finding innovative ways for building social skills among peers. Instead of having two classes gathering in the same space to socialize, teachers can now allow this to happen virtually with the implementation of Microsoft TEAMS.

Teachers have also taken an initiative connecting with students at home to ensure total inclusion of our entire student body. This is a novel experience for us all – teachers, parents and students are all learning to navigate TEAMS together, so they have an option to connect if they are home.

We have also begun a leisure activity for students – a weekly virtual bingo tournament where students from every class can interact with one another and participate online. This is our way of staying safe, still staying connected and still having fun!

At the moment, the promotion of positive mental health is our main goal. A focus has been placed on activities that support mental health and diminish anxiety. We are taking advantage of the last few warm months by spending as much time outdoors as possible. Students have been engaged in activities that lift their spirits, such as artistic expression, reading for pleasure, theatre, soap making, culinary arts, video production and physical activity. The relationship between COVID-19, anxiety and practicing yoga, has proven to have beneficial effects on the mind, body and soul. Meditation, guided breathing exercises and yoga have greatly assisted our students while easing back into the classroom and diminishing their concerns – especially when we do not have complete control of our surroundings.

Fear is still prominent – which is completely normal during a time of uncertainty. Students express their worries for their elderly parents, their friends who have not returned to school and especially their concern for a second wave and the prospect of school’s shutting down again. When anxieties take over, we encourage our students to take it day-by-day and always focus on positive emotions. The power of yoga and meditation have proven to bring students’ drifting minds back into focus and have allowed them to better understand their anxiety. While we may not always have complete control, we can always infuse optimism into our surroundings – and that is exactly what the return to Galileo has provided our students!