EAST GREENWICH—The town council heard Monday of the initiatives being undertaken at the request of local leaders in education and mental health. Despite the increased fear and panic surrounding the proliferation of COVID-19, drug program director Bob Houghtaling and soon-to-be district superintendent Alexis Meyer catalogued their efforts to continue offering the town with access to top-tier resources.

As part of the effort to maintain continuity of operations in the town, town manager Andrew Nota announced that substance abuse and mental health counseling would continue under Houghtaling throughout the pandemic.

“A lot of this support would be provided by Bob through our schools, if the schools were in session,” Nota said. “But now that the schools are not in session, it’s a little bit more of a process to connect professionals like Bob with those in need in our community.”

As such, Houghtaling will be given a room at the Swift Community Center, where he will hold one-on-one meetings by appointment from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM, Monday through Friday. Houghtaling expects to be very busy in the coming weeks, as concerns about illness and job security abound and anxiety levels skyrocket. For those dealing with anxiety, depression or substance abuse issues, Houghtaling stressed that the access to health resources was as vital as ever.

“Working in conjunction with the town manager, we decided to focus on two things. One is access, being able to gain access to individuals who are in immediate crises and need viable services. Right off the bat, I probably have 20-25 individuals who need care or need ongoing intervention,” Houghtaling told the town council on Monday. “In addition to that is presence, and I think that it’s imperative that we acknowledge and promote the notion that there is support out there.”

As part of that effort to increase support presence in the town, Houghtaling will be accepting volunteers to lead community walks, a specialty program of sorts in which local residents can get outside and go for walks in small groups and check in on residents who may be disconnected from the community or be too anxious to leave their home. The announcement was followed by an email from Houghtaling encouraging residents to take a walk to help themselves reset mentally and physically.

“There are ways of engaging the world during this time of tribulation. One of these ways is taking a walk,” Houghtaling wrote. “While, for certain, there will be many physical, economic and mental health burdens to bear due to impacts made by the Coronavirus, seeking a brief respite can offer hope and resiliency.”

“It is important to support your own mental and physical health during these difficult times. Walking, when possible, can provide a little of both,” Houghtaling added. “If you are not ambulatory, catching some fresh air, finding a place to admire the trees, the sky, and other beauties of nature can inspire. It is small and simple, but ever so important.”

Those suffering from anxiety, substance-abuse or some other mental-health issue, or who are interested in volunteering for community walks, are encouraged to contact Houghtaling, whose information can be found in the staff directory on the town’s website.

Apart from tending to the mental landscape of the town, local leadership is also striving to feed and nurture the town’s youth, who have been made suddenly out of school by an executive order of Governor Gina Raimondo, which made the week a school holiday. Raimondo is expected to continue closing campuses across the state through March, and possibly well into April. As such, Alexis Meyer has led the effort to ensure that youth within the district will have access to educational materials and that educators and administrators will be able to commit to distance learning for the foreseeable future.

“We are currently in the process of putting together our distance learning plan,” Meyer said. “[Interim superintendent] Dr. Pallotta and I are in regular communication with the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Rhode Island Department of Health and certainly the governor’s office.”

As part of that distance learning effort, students across the district will be given access to Chromebooks so that they can access online classrooms. While students of East Greenwich High School already have such access, Meyer has led the effort to ensure that all school youth, kindergarten and up, will have the same access, and has suggested that the district can create its own internet hotspot if necessary to ensure that all students have access to an online curriculum.

The decision to ensure access came after Meyer circulated an online survey to parents in the district to gauge internet availability for out-of-school youth. The survey garnered over 1,300 responses and highlighted the key problem that, while most households do have access to the internet in some form, many homes only have one computer and that computer is likely to be in use as numerous parents are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, Meyer’s leadership in securing district-wide Chromebook access.

Finally, while schools have been suddenly rendered closed, many families who rely on school lunch programs have been tossed into uncertainty and stress regarding ensuring that their children are being properly fed. So-called “grab-and-go” meals are now being made available to any students or families with children under the age of 18. There are no ID or residency requirements to receive a meal, but the child must be present at pick-up, as schools are not allowed to give meals to adults on behalf of a child.

Grab-and-go meals in East Greenwich can be obtained at Eldredge and Frenchtown elementary schools between 11:30 AM and 12:30 PM, Monday through Friday.

Amid the uncertainty and frequent hyperbole and disinformation associated with national crises, town leadership presented a calm and constructive front, aimed at ameliorating unnecessary stress and anxiety, and increasing social support and neighborly cohesion.

“The present challenges often appear daunting. This is a time when sacrifices are being made each day. Sure, things are hard–that is why brief breaks are essential,” Houghtaling wrote. “Please take care of yourselves and those around you. There is great beauty in this world–one of the foremost manifestations being man’s love for his fellow man. We are being called upon to serve. In doing so our efforts will protect those we care for deeply.”

Town council president Mark Schwager also reflected on the value of community leaders, their efforts and the road that the town has tread in coming to this point.

“I remember when we first came into office, when I thought we were facing a crisis,” Schwager said. “In retrospect, that looks like a warmup. I just have so much appreciation to all our professionals and your energy and your dedication to our community. Thank you.”

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