WO community frustrated by elimination of Wellness Coaches

Lyndsay Neitzel and Kayden Panse

“At the end of the day on Monday the 28th, I was informed by the HR Director that my position as a Wellness Coach was being eliminated and I would be moved to another position in the district, effective December 5th. This gave me four days to break the news to students, try to put support plans in place, and say goodbye to some amazing colleagues. As you can imagine, that was a really difficult and emotional experience for me and for students. Because I had already accepted a new position with Holland Public Schools, I chose to resign from West Ottawa instead of taking the position I was being moved to. So I am now a School Social Worker with HPS at West Elementary,” Kristin Douma said.

A Wellness Coach typically has one-on-one sessions with students who want to improve their health and well-being.  Over the few years of Covid existence, West Ottawa High School created the Wellness Coach position. After two short years, the wellness position was cut.

There was frustration about why this change. Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Jens Milobinski said, “Federal funds that were given to W.O. during the Covid years are starting to run out. We are eliminating positions that were added during these years. This was decided by the entire administrative team and supported by the school board members. No one lost their job. These positions were only eliminated when other employees retired or resigned, and then they were reassigned. No change in pay or benefits for any employees.”

Students are concerned about this change, looking to blame those in charge. “They don’t see the value of what other kids are going through, and what that can create in their lives,” a sophomore said. “They focused more on the budget rather than what kids need.”

The recurring response from students learning about this position being cut was about how the student body relies on Douma as the wellness coach.  “Douma was really easy to talk to…It is really hard to open up and she made it easy,”  a sophomore said.

Staff members are also heartbroken at the loss of Douma. One teacher said, “Her office was always busy. Always. I just feel so much sympathy for our kids in crisis. There is nowhere for them. Our counselors are extremely busy, so it’s tough for them to add on the work the Douma was doing.”

However, these were tough decisions for the administration that economically had to be done. An email was sent out to the whole district for more clarification.“With the challenges of the past few school years, and the challenges that have been faced by our students and staff, West Ottawa Schools has recognized that there are greater needs for mental health support and social-emotional wellness support than at any time in recent memory,” Superintendent Tim Bearden wrote. “Because of funding constraints, some of our staff hired for support positions will be moved into other positions that match their certifications as natural attrition occurs.”

When parents heard about this decision, they were confused as to why this was happening and concerned for their children’s mental health in and out of high school. “…I just found out they have eliminated all mental health positions at the high school, and are using the community mental health funds from the rescue plan to hire more ‘security’ officers for the school instead.” An anonymous parent said on a social media page. The frustration was real, but often it was colored by misinformation, as shared by this parent.

“I am comfortable talking to Douma about my health needs.” When students think of someone to help them through hard times, Douma was there when they needed her. She helped in ways others could not.

The parents are not keeping quiet about their thoughts and feelings about this change. A second parent from the same post mentioned, “We need to coordinate and make it known that we are not okay with leaving vulnerable kids without mental health support in the middle of a pandemic and mental health crisis.”  Though Douma will be missed, WO counselors are available to help struggling students.

Reducing the availability of mental health support contradicts a broader movement in education. On December 9, 2022, Governor Gretchen Whitmer released the Parents’ Council Report Recommending Further Investments in Student Wellness, Teacher Recruitment, Learning Supports, and More on the Michigan Department of Education. The report suggested that schools “Prioritize and support access to student mental health and school safety funding for schools in the state budget, including funds for counselors and social workers, school programming, and curricula.”

“I just wish we could have found a more creative solution, if funding is the bottom line,” a teacher said.

The West Ottawa Administration has done its best to provide for the students here at WO with their health care, even with this position being cut. There has been concern about this happening, yet with cooperation between the students and the administration, there can be a healthy environment overall in the future.