Wellness Center adapts for in-person cohorts

Sofie Zalatimo and Andy Robinson

Shifting locations during COVID-19, the Palo Alto High School Wellness Center has quickly adapted to new spaces — both physical and virtual. Wellness Outreach Officer Whitney Aquino said that although the Wellness Center staff is unable to check on students in the same way they normally would, they are offering resources to ensure that students feel supported. “[Previously] they’re taking a break in class and then you can say, ‘Do you want to talk to someone?’ and they might end up opening up … versus when we’re online, folks can just take a break in their own homes,” she said. “We’ve seen perhaps fewer people dropping in, but we’ve also seen more people who are able to access resources by coming in on their own or filling out the form.” Photo: Andy Robinson

The Wellness Center team has returned to the Palo Alto High School campus, offering mental health services and a place to relax for students in in-person cohorts while continuing its robust virtual operations to support students during distance learning.

Two weeks ago, over 100 students returned to the Paly campus in small groups while continuing to attend their classes via Zoom, requiring the center to adapt its services to support in-person students.

To meet students’ mental health needs, Wellness Outreach Officer Whitney Aquino said that the center will continue to host both drop-in hours and pre-scheduled meetings online. Students can attend drop-in hours, which occur during lunch on weekdays and during Advisory on Fridays, via Zoom, where they will first speak to a staff member before being connected with a therapist.

Students can also choose to confidentially schedule a meeting with a therapist in advance. The center is ensuring that on-campus students can access their scheduled virtual therapy meetings in a private space.

According to Aquino, the private therapy meetings are a necessary measure to aid students, as the pandemic has greatly impacted mental health.

“There are some studies where folks’ mental health has been impacted by isolation, and the pandemic also has [caused] a lot of grief, like grieving [of] normalcy and grieving of events that we couldn’t do,” Aquino said. “Then there’s also the actual grief, like folks who are losing their life due to COVID.”

Aquino also said that in her experience, distance learning has had widely varying effects on students’ well-being. 

“Some folks have really enjoyed the flexibility and the chance to schedule their own stuff and having that time at home, and … wear[ing] PJs to class … and sleeping [in] a little later,” she said. “For others, it’s like, ‘It’s not as easy for me to be in touch with my friends … maybe I don’t live in the same neighborhood as my friends so I can’t see them.'”

For students who have returned to campus, the center has implemented a number of safety measures in line with safety requirements practiced by the rest of the district as mandated by county health officials, Paly Health Technician Jennifer Kleckner said. With these distancing and masking guidelines in place, students can take breaks in the center while at school, provided the cohorts do not mix, according to Aquino.

The center has also shifted to a new location inside the Tower Building. The center is now located across from the administration offices in the area formerly occupied by guidance, while the Health Office has remained in its original location. Kleckner said the Paly Health Office has been expanded to include an isolation room where students with possible COVID symptoms can wait to be picked up by their parent, and then be evaluated by their doctor. Although the shift in location keeps the center and the Health Office physically separated, the two remain in close communication to support students.

“Ideally, the Wellness Center was created so that you could just walk through one door and get all of your health and wellness needs met,” Aquino said. “Physical health and mental health [do] have a lot of overlap. And so someone might be visiting the nurse for a stomach ache but really what it is is a lot of anxiety.

Aquino said she hopes that the center will be able to host events with on-campus students, but recognizes that the inability to work with groups could hinder its efforts. Previously, the center hosted a variety of activities to reduce student stress, particularly during finals week. Given current restrictions, the staff is finding new ways to interact with the student body, according to Aquino.

“Something that we’ve been trying to do virtuallythat is a lot more difficult because people are kind of over … Zoom — [is] having resource fairs so people are aware and know about all of the different resources that are available,” she said. “‘It’s important for people not just to think like ‘Oh, I can only go to Paly wellness for mental health support.’  [There are] a bunch of folks in the community that are here to help them through very different experiences.”

Students interested in the wellness center can find more information by visiting their website or by filling out the request form to set up a virtual meeting. You can also find them on Instagram (@palywellness) or through their InFocus Wellness QuickTip videos.