Newtown school leaders vow to fill mental health ‘holes’ with new health and wellness czar

NEWTOWN — A decade ago, when the school district’s health and wellness coordinator retired, it seemed prudent to parcel out duties to other administrators rather than fill the open position.

But the 21-month-old coronavirus crisis has exposed gaps in that strategy by overworking those burdened with the extra duties, Newtown’s top educator said.

“We have pulled people out of their roles in order to get things done, and when you do that you start to see holes and you start to see that people are overwhelmed,” Superintendent Lorrie Rodrigue told Newtown’s Board of Education this week. “We have a pandemic that has focused us on the social and emotional wellness of our students and staff, and I feel strongly this is a position that is truly needed once again.”

In response, the school board authorized hiring a full-time health and wellness coordinator who would design programs, review district practices, track program progress and “support work across the district in meeting the social and emotional needs of our students at every level.”

The position could be filled as soon as March.

The establishment of the new position follows an announcement by Rodrigue late last month that she will retire at the end of the school year to care for her parents, capping a five-year stint as Newtown’s top educator.

The Board of Education unanimously approved Rodrigue’s request for a new health and wellness czar during a school board meeting on Tuesday.

“I support this fully given what we are seeing happening with the mental health of our children, and also just to be able to service our staff as well,” said Janet Kuzma, a newly elected school board member. “This is definitely a good move.”

Kuzma is referring to a new health and wellness czar who would:

Develop programs to deal with health-related student issues

Act as a resource for the school board and the superintendent

Develop policies, practices and protocols related to health and wellness

Work with the district’s human resources director on employee wellness initiatives, and

Serve as a community resource on subjects such as depression, anxiety, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse

Rodrigue noted that the new health and wellness czar would “maintain a high level of communication with families and staff … this is critical.”

After hiring the new czar, the district’s top nurse would go back to supervising school nurses. Ann Dalton, the supervisor of student health services, has been getting overtime pay along with other nurses for doing extra administrative work past school hours, Rodrigue said.

“(Dalton) has been pulled away from her role as it is defined,” Rodrigue said during Tuesday’s meeting. “That is what happens when there are holes and you’ve got to burden other people and it takes them away from the work at hand.”

Other responsibilities the czar would take on include the district’s health and wellness curriculum and a biennial report to the state.

Newly elected school board member Jennifer Larkin asked during Tuesday’s meeting, “How do we measure the effectiveness of a position like this over time?”

“The best way to look at it is if the students are being successful and families are feeling there is a level of support based on our programming and oversight,” Rodrigue responded. “I think that is how you truly measure whether the position is needed.”

“I didn’t doubt for a second that it wouldn’t serve its intended purpose,” Larkin said. “I was just thinking of ways we could celebrate its success.”

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