Longer Thanksgiving breaks aim to support mental health amid pandemic struggles

Coronavirus

WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — Several West Michigan school districts have decided to extend Thanksgiving break due to illnesses and staffing shortages.

Several school districts, including Galesburg-Augusta Community Schools, Muskegon Public Schools, Ravenna Public Schools and Wyoming Public Schools, are canceling classes Monday and Tuesday to give students the entire week of Thanksgiving off.

The extension gives students nine days away from the classroom. Superintendents say the extra days off will provide an opportunity to clean school buildings and break for students and staff to get healthy.

In recent weeks, many districts in West Michigan have seen an increase in illnesses, which have resulted in attendance issues and staff shortages.

Several districts are encouraging students and staff to use the time as a mental health and wellness break. In a letter to parents, Muskegon Public Schools Superintendent Matthew Cortez said the district is seeing an increase in stress and anxiety among students and staff this school year.

“The adjustment back to a learning environment after 18 months virtually has proven to be a stressful and anxious time for many of us,” Cortez wrote. “While this couple of days off is not a solution, it is a step in the right direction toward encouraging relief and self-care that we all need to practice.”

Other district leaders noted similar behavior.

Christy Buck, founder of the West Michigan Mental Health Foundation and be nice. program said the pandemic has a lot to do with it.

“It’s causing a lot of stress on people,” Buck said. “(The pandemic) is causing a shortage of staff members as it causes a people to have to stay home.”

The virus-related absences among staff have been exacerbated by the ongoing substitute teacher shortage. The lack of available substitutes has forced teachers and administrators to fill in during their break period.

“I think that all of those reasons are lending to the stress,” Buck said.

Grand Rapids Public Schools has scheduled two wellness days in December, citing a combination of reasons including an uptick in student and staff absences and the ongoing substitute shortage. GRPS announced schools will be closed the first two Fridays of the month. A spokesperson with the district said those days were chosen because it’s more difficult to find substitute teachers at the beginning and end of the week. 

“Those two days should totally be concentrating on our mental wellness,” she said. “What can I do for myself those two days? It could be getting up later in the day… possibly doing a recreational activity that I typically don’t have time to do.”

On Tuesday, Spectrum Health officials said the Grand Rapids-based health system had 367 COVID-19-positive patients in its hospitals, the most it has had all through the pandemic. After months of seeing a slow increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations, officials say this past week has seen a dramatic spike.

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