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North Allegheny hosting online program to address pandemic’s mental health impact

Only research and time will tell the long-term toll the pandemic has taken on mental health and well-being.

But North Allegheny School District officials already know that health concerns, isolation during shutdowns and the interruption of routines have frayed many children and adults during the past year.

To begin addressing those issues, the district is hosting a free online program from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on April 12 titled “Maximizing Student Success & Whole Family Wellness during the Pandemic and Beyond.”

The 90-minute presentation moderated by Joseph Sciullo, the district’s director of student services, will feature a panel of experts and a question-and-answer session.

The idea for the program grew out of last year’s decision by the district to create a school-based mental health resource for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, said Melissa Friez, the district’s deputy superintendent.

Friez, who also serves on the district’s Citizens Advisory Council, said the group saw the upcoming online program as a good way to meet its mission of working on projects that positively impact the community.

“We found that families are taking advantage of the mental health resources that we’ve made available,” she said. “But like many things that are new, and especially a topic like mental health, it can be a little scary for people to talk about publicly.

“So I told the council that I really thought our focus on mental health should broaden and that we should become more active in the community advocating for mental health services and for our families to take advantage of them.”

Because the program is being conducted online, residents of any community can participate, said Friez, adding that the district plans to host similar online sessions in the future.

“The pandemic has obviously had a huge impact on our community,” she said. “And the constant adapting to change has really been a challenge. We feel it’s important to get the message out about the need to take care of yourself as we get back to some sort of normal and prepare for the next school year.”

Topics that will be covered include:

• Ways families can recognize early warning signs of mental health.

• Services provided to students and families.

• The need for mental health resources to respond to what students and families have experienced during the pandemic.

• Ways to maximize student success post-pandemic.

Friez said the goal of the session is to provide participants with answers and guidance to help them prepare for a return to for full in-person instruction.

“We know our families have questions about what they can do between now and the start of the school year to help their children get ready,” she said. “And they want to know what’s going to be available to their child when they return.”

The meeting will be conducted via Google Meet. Sign up to participate or submit a question on the district website. The live meeting link will be available on the North Allegheny website and emailed to registered participants prior to the event.

The panel of experts is:

• Jackie Bishop: school social worker, North Allegheny School District

• Maggie Caesar-Myers: director of outpatient & school-based services, Glade Run

• Bryan Kiggins: student services department chair, North Allegheny School District

• Dr. Paula McCommons: STAR-Center Outreach & behavioral health liaison for Allegheny County Student Assistance Program

• Dr. Ana Radovic: assistant professor of pediatrics, Division of Adolescent & Young Adult Medicine Center for Behavioral Health, Media, & Technology

• Stephanie Saikaly: positive behavior support specialist, North Allegheny School District

• Dr. Rameshwari V. Tumuluru: associate professor of psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh

Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tony at 724-772-6368, [email protected] or via Twitter .