Despite difficulties created by the pandemic, the Berkeley High School (BHS) Health Center has remained open, and continues to provide all mental, sexual and reproductive health services that were available before the pandemic, as well as over-the-phone care for students.
To accommodate students during the pandemic, the Health Center has created a warmline, which students can call to access mental health assistance and reproductive and sexual health services. “Students can call the warmline for either immediate, in-the-moment, ‘I want to talk to someone’ kind of phone call, or they can call to schedule an appointment for a future date by phone or by Zoom,” said Sally Walstrom, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health clinician at the BHS Health Center. In-person mental health counseling has also been available at the Health Center during the 2020-21 school year for students who want in-person support.
Family members, teachers, and staff can also call the warmline to refer students for mental health support. The line, which is operated by Walstrom, is open to call from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM on school days. This is an increase in hours from the spring when, according to Walstrom, the warmline was only available from around 12:00 to 4:00 PM.
The Health Center is also able to provide long-term counseling services to students, or help students find care through their health insurance. “Usually, but not always, if [students] want longer term care through the Health Center they will have an intake appointment that might be with me or might be with someone else. I do most, but not all of them. And then they would be assigned to another clinician other than me to receive longer-term support throughout the year,” said Walstrom.
In addition to the warmline and telehealth appointments, in-person reproductive and mental health services are also available to students. According to information available on the BHS website, sexual health services available at the Health Center include testing, treatment and counseling for sexually transmitted infections (STI), birth control and emergency contraception, testing and treatment for vaginal and urinary tract infections, and testing, prevention, and counseling for pregnancy. Students can also call the warmline to ask any questions they may have about sexual and reproductive health.
According to Hana Shirriel, the director of the Health Center, they have seen a drop in student usage during distance learning. The decrease is most likely due to a variety of reasons, including students no longer being on campus, a lack of awareness that the Health Center is open, or students being unable or unsure of how to access it during distance learning. Shirriel added that maintaining confidentiality is one of the challenges of providing mental and reproductive healthcare online that may prevent students from using the Health Center. However, the clinic has strategies in place to help ensure that students’ privacy is protected.
“The confidentiality piece on our part is that we always have measures to make sure that we are talking directly to the student and making sure that the student is in a safe and confidential space. And we have words and phrases that we use to make sure that those things are upheld and to make sure that students can continue to feel safe and comfortable coming here,” Shirriel said.
Ultraviolet Schneider-Dwyer, a senior in Independent Studies (IS) who has used the BHS Health Center during the pandemic, said the staff at the Health Center were very supportive. “They asked me a lot of questions as they would for a normal appointment … They asked me about distance learning and if I’m able to get care where I need when things are closed down, if I have any health insurance and things like that, and if there are places where I feel supported where I can get the resources I need other than the Health Center,” she said.
Because the Health Center is considered an essential health care service, they have been able to remain open despite the most recent shelter-in-place order.
In order to protect students and staff, the Health Center has implemented multiple precautions to prevent spreading COVID-19 since the spring. “We do have students call the Health Center first so we can make sure to ask [them] some screening questions before [they] come in such as if [they] have any symptoms, if [they] have any known-exposures. When students come in for an appointment we of course check their temperature, and we ask them a couple more screening questions, and make sure that we are socially distancing when we are doing the in-person appointments,” said Shirriel. First aid services are the only care that the Health Center no longer provides during distance learning.
According to Schneider-Dwyer, she was given a number to call to let the Health Center know when she had arrived, and waited outside until it was time for her appointment. Staff at the Health Center also checked her temperature before entering, asked her if she was having any symptoms of COVID-19, wore masks, and social distanced during her appointment.
Apart from COVID-19 precautions, Schneider Dwyer said her experience using the Health Center during the pandemic was similar to her experiences in the past. “I still was able to talk to a registered nurse and doctor who could answer my questions about certain birth control methods and stuff like that. Overall they were just really productive and did what they needed to do for me,” she said.
One of the Health Center’s main priorities during distance learning is raising awareness among students that they are still open and able to provide services. According to Walstrom, the Health Center has “tried to do outreach with flyers and get the word out to teachers, and administrators, and OCI, to get the word out about the availability of the warmline.” According to Schneider-Dwyer, she learned the Health Center was open through the student bulletin and through her work in Associated Student Body (ASB) Leadership as ASB vice president.
The Health Center is also spreading awareness through Sexual Health Information From Teens (SHIFT), a student group run through the Health Center and the Public Health Department of the City of Berkeley. In past years, SHIFT has given presentations to freshmen classes to educate on reproductive and sexual health and raise awareness about the services offered by the Health Center. According to Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) senior and SHIFT member Ava Clason, this year SHIFT is working to develop virtual presentations both for freshmen and sophomores, as SHIFT was not able to present to freshman classes last school year due to the pandemic.
Jojo Hartman, a senior in Academic Choice (AC) and a member of SHIFT, said BHS students often are not aware of the full scope of services offered by the Health Center. “For example, the implant is a birth control method that lasts for three years and it goes inside of your arm. People are always so surprised that you can literally walk into the Health Center one day, and with a quick consultation you can get one put in your arm like a week later with an appointment … You don’t need insurance or parental consent or anything like that,” she said.
Clason also noted that students may not be aware of the level of care available at the Health Center. “The Health Center has the same quality of things like birth control methods and STI testing that your medical care provider would have. I think for some students that come from more financially stable backgrounds or have had insurance, there can be some stigma against the Health Center that it is not as good because it is free … So I wish more people would realize that it is a tool that is completely valid and just as effective as if you were to pursue it from Planned Parenthood or a different place,” she said.
As distance learning continues, the Health Center will keep providing care to students, and SHIFT will continue educating students on sexual and reproductive health and the services available at the Health Center. Students looking to access services from the Health Center can call (510) 644-6965 or call the warmline at (510) 981-5240.