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Social-emotional check-in app discussed at Mars Area board meeting

September’s cybersecurity breach also addressed

ADAMS TWP — A “wellness check-in tool” for students generated a lot of discussion at the Mars Area School Board meeting Tuesday evening. Board members did not vote on whether to give the system a trial run.

Board members discussed whether the district should try out the Rhithm app in grades one through five, and with special education students in grades six through 12. The trial run of the system would come at no cost to the district.

The system is described as a social-emotional learning check-in app, or a “wellness check-in tool.” The app invites students to check in on their mood and well-being with an “emoji-based” survey, according to a description of Rhithm from the app’s website.

“Based on their answers, our algorithm presents each student with a short activity to teach them essential life skills and/or to get them ready to learn,” according to the description of Rhithm from the app’s website. “Leaders can also create and deploy custom surveys and assessments to get a unique pulse on culture, climate, and more.”

Board member Sallie Wick worried that the app opens up a “Pandora’s box” of concerns around “responsibility, liability, parental rights, student rights, and teachers’ rights.”

“I think educators are trying to bring in tools to help kids, and I get that, but there is so much involved in this,” she said. “We could be, in trying to help kids and trying to not miss something, and in trying to say, ‘instead of sitting back and doing nothing, let’s do as much as we can with these funds that we have,’ we could be unfortunately causing more problems.”

Wick asked whether parents would be able to see students’ responses to the app and said that she found that parents would have to contact their school to see the data, which she identified as a concern.

“Any mental health decision, in my personal opinion, or the social-emotional well being of my child, I should have part in that decision making,” she said.

Wick raised concerns that the emojis, which include various faces and symbols to represent states of being like hunger, anger or tiredness, might be unclear. She also asked whether teachers were qualified to be giving interventions to students who indicate they are struggling. She asked whether the coping mechanisms and lessons suggested by the app would all align with parental decisions.

“Who decides what well-being looks like?” she said. “How would we ensure that, when we’re training teachers to be dealing with children on a day-to-day basis, that you wouldn’t have morals and values taught in conjunction with some of these tools?”

Though parents would be able to opt out their children from the program if it was implemented, Wick suggested that the program be presented publicly as curriculum for parents and families to preview before it would be tested out in the district.

Board discussion

Other school board members shared their opinions on the program. Board member Megan Lenz said that mental health assistance is necessary. She raised the point that a program like Rhithm would need a robust counselor and mental health staff at a school to respond to students in need. While each building at Mars Area now has a counselor, those counselors are often busy, Lenz said.

“I won’t be here next week, so my vote would be yes to pilot this program, the reason being that the reality we are facing right now is that kids kill themselves. I personally witness this,” she said. “We can’t do nothing.”

Board member Jennifer DiCuccio said she is concerned that the program would present an additional workload for teachers.

“I know that they have a lot on their plate already, and they are going to get an email — they’re already getting emails nonstop from us as parents,” she said. “To throw this additional responsibility onto them, a lot of times, I feel like they’re going to have to pass this on to the guidance counselor, and then I’m concerned that the guidance counselors are going to be overwhelmed.”

The district will vote on trying out the program for the second semester at next week’s board meeting. But superintendent Mark Gross said that the district would rather not implement a program that would cause concerns among parents.

“Based on the comments tonight, we don’t want to implement any program that creates any type of anxieties for parents, where they feel we may be overstepping,” Gross said. “The goal is not that at all ... if we don’t pilot the program, it’s OK.”

Update on cybersecurity incident

In response to a cybersecurity breach that occurred at Mars Area in late September, Gross said the district is working with a third party, Kroll Information Assurance, to notify anyone affected about next steps to take in response.

“The third party is going to be notifying individuals through a letter, anyone who has been impacted, to direct them on what they need to do to take measures to protect themselves, and also will give them an opportunity to get complementary credit monitoring, and how to sign up for that,” Gross explained. “Those notifications will go out (Wednesday). The only people who will get notifications are those who we have identified were compromised in some manner.”

Gross reiterated that the district is “fully functional again” after the incident, and said he wanted to make sure anyone who was impacted knows the steps to “protect themselves.”

“There won’t really be any more announcements, because the people who are impacted are getting direct communication,” he said.

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