Students showing up distracted, stressed and sometimes depressed due to pandemic, social workers say

Partnerships and new hires at South San ISD address mental health needs

SAN ANTONIO – Children’s mental health has been at the forefront of this school year as students made their way back into the classroom. After almost two years of virtual lessons and, many times, lack of structure, social workers at South San Independent School District said students are struggling to settle back into their usual rhythm.

Ron Flores is the lead social worker for the district, made up of about 8,000 students. In anticipation of increased demand for mental health services, the district hired two social workers to form part of the district’s CARE Zone.

“(From) August to now, we’ve (received) 250 referrals for students (in need of) mental health (services),” Flores said. The CARE Zone was launched in November 2019 in partnership with The San Antonio Mobile Mental Wellness Collaborative.

According to Flores, CARE Zone continues to tackle two of the biggest barriers students at South San ISD face: transportation and access to mental health services.

The program offers various free mental wellness services that include individual, family, substance abuse counseling. Other partnership agencies include San Antonio Threads for clothing needs, San Antonio Food Bank, Region 20 offers ESL and GED classes, Baby Paws for early childhood pre-services, a garden club and internship opportunities.

“Our partners are the ones that actually see the students for the mental health counseling, but our social workers for the district each carry a caseload as well.”

One of the new hires includes Chelsee Gabrysch. She has worked as a social worker for the school district for the last six months.

Gabrysch says her caseload is about 15 students.

“(My job is) helping them to learn, to cope, deal, manage and process, you know, the different things that they’ve been through (in the past year),” Gabrysch said. “A lot of the kids are dealing with mental health issues, and it’s hard for them to be able to go to school and focus when they have other things going on.”

Bobby Mota is a student ambassador for South San ISD’s CARE Zone Program.

“We help with kids and need to spread out the word of being kind,” Mota said. “I’ve seen areas where, like, (students) are very mean to other kids or the kids have been abused or people that are on drugs. And I like helping people with that.”

Although CARE Zone does provide other free resources, the focus is on mental health wellness. For nearly the past two years, they’ve only been able to offer virtual counseling sessions.

Flores said the in-person services are needed now more than ever.

“Our community is a predominantly (a) lower-income community, and we have a lot of intergenerational trauma (and) intergenerational poverty,” Flores said. “People have lost family members, you know, and sometimes those are the only guardian the child has.”

“Children that have lost their parents, you know, there’s a lot of stress and anxiety that comes from that,” Gabrysch said. “We have the different agencies here that we work with that offer bereavement services, individual group therapy and family counseling.”

Flores said the no-cost services have helped kids be kids and succeed in the classroom without leaving school.

For the past year, Rosario García’s son, Sergio, has visited his caseworker once a week.

“He’s telling me he’s getting better grades now,” García said. “Last year, he was having a lot of trouble with (school). He wasn’t happy.”

Sergio is a 7th grader. Now, he’s passing his classes and enjoying being back in the classroom.

“We have seen a lot of maturity, a lot of growth. Grades are better (and) attendance is better,” Flores said. “We also are able to provide that extra support that his teachers may need as well.”

Without CARE Zone, social workers fear these students would never get the academic or mental health services they need.

“We would see probably higher rates of self-interest behavior or even, unfortunately, suicide attempts as well,” Flores said.

Currently, the school district aims to hire another social worker to help meet the demand from students.

About the Authors:

Alicia Barrera is a KSAT 12 News reporter and anchor. She is also a co-host of the streaming show KSAT News Now. Alicia is a first-generation Mexican-American, fluent in both Spanish and English with a bachelor's degree from Our Lady of the Lake University. She enjoys reading books, traveling solo across Mexico and spending time with family.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.