ROCKFORD (WREX) — Two weeks from today, classes will resume for RPS 205 schools. It’s been 169 days since state COVID-19 precautions forced students and staff physically out of classrooms.

This abrupt change uprooted students’ life at school and potentially impacted their life at home.

“We knew that during that time they were going to have an increased need for mental health concerns and trauma,” says licensed social worker Nicole Bennett. “Parents had maybe an increase use of drugs and alcohol, or loss of job. So there’s a financial strain, a lack of food, a lack of resources.”

Bennett works for the United Way as an Achievement Advocate at Lincoln Middle School. She witnessed firsthand how COVID-19 impacted some students.

“Not getting out of bed. Not even wanting to go outside when it was nice. Not engaging in distance-learning.”

For some, Bennett saw feelings of anger.

“I want to be at school, I want to be with my friends, I want to be in front of my teacher. And it’s really hard because you just sit with them. There’s nothing you can really do to change that.”

Bennett says a number of students could have been subjected to more time in environments where domestic or sexual violence took place. Issues that are compounded by stressors some students at Lincoln already dealt with before the pandemic.

“Just the zip code Lincoln is located in we have a lot of community violence and trauma,” says Bennett.

Students have become comfortable sharing their feelings with Bennett, thanks to groundwork she’s built through something called Move the Middle. It’s a United Way campaign that’s focused on keeping kids from dropping out, by intervening as early as 6th grade.

“I collect student data, analyze student data and monitor student data to identify students that are off track,” says Bennett.

For example, a student with a number of absences or behavorial issues could signal that child is struggling with something outside of school.

“It could be students who have issues with transportation,” says Bennett. “So maybe they missed a few days of school because of transportation. All the way to a child could be being sexually abused at home they are quietly misbehaving in class, or kind of angry and irritated.”

The program partnered with agencies like Rosecrance and Children’s Home and Aid to provide sessions like trauma counseling and organization conflict resolution. Skills administrators hope will help keep students on a path to success.

“If they start establishing really poor organization habits starting at 6th grade and we don’t fix it right away when they hit 9th grade where they have to have credits, and those are when it count hey’re going to be lost,” says Lincoln Principal Kirsten Garrigan. “That’s where we lose them.”

Garrigan says Move the Middle played a vital role in how counselors and teachers looked after students during the spring remote learning period.

“What they need whether it’s food, whether it’s a bag of diapers for younger siblings, whether they don’t know how to navigate a virtual learning platform.”

Going into this school year, the abnormal setup will provide obstacles. However, Garrigan believes it may also provide opportunities. For example, during lunch time children will be broken up into smaller numbers.

“Once we know where the kids are at we can start putting my United Way Move the Middle people into rooms,” says Garrigan. “And my counselors in rooms where they’re doing social emotional skills during lunchtime to get to know them better and guide them in this.”

“Needs will be even greater than they were before,” says Bennett. “We’ve asked our service providers to come to registration to really, really start early.”

Bennett says during the summer she’s working with social worker and counselor Kevin Polky on how teachers and administrators can navigate this unique school year.

“How do we work with educators,” asks Polky. “How do we work with stakeholders who have vested interest in helping students, helping educators as they’re preparing for this upcoming school year?”

Polky says his training looks at things like how to grieve different losses COVID-19 created, how to develop resiliency as an ongoing lifestyle, and implementing self care throughout the school year.

Ultimately he works to help these stakeholders see the bigger picture and have grace in an unprecedented situation.

“In nine months we will be at the end of this school year. And how we are doing this and laying this out and being kind and graceful as we go through this will be the story we will tell next April and May.”