NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — It has been a tough year for kids navigating through a pandemic while trying to learn in school or virtually.

On Thursday, CBS2’s Jenna DeAngelis went to Staten Island, where one school system is using a special program to prioritize students’ mental health.

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Social distancing, wearing masks, and staring at a screen have been the new way of learning for students.

The coronavirus pandemic created challenges beyond the books.

“We knew that in addition to the academic issues that students may be returning to school with that there were definitely going to be some social emotional needs that we really needed to address in the school,” said Larry Hansen, principal of Saint Joseph Hill Academy.

COVID VACCINE

So, the school brought in special simulation training for its staff and teachers like JP Pablo.

“Pre-teaching us what kind of things to look out for and what kind of things we can ask the students to help them open up,” said Pablo, who teaches junior high science.

They are using avatars to act out real-life crisis scenarios.

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Katherine Moncure is with Kognito, the company behind the technology. She showed CBS2 how it works.

There are several situations teachers can go through, getting feedback along the way. Kognito has different programs that address bullying, mental health, and suicide prevention. DeAngelis saw one called “Trauma Informed Practices,” which Moncure said was developed with global nonprofit UNICEF after Hurricane Harvey.

“The intent was to create a program that can be applied to any kind of traumatic situation. Of course, with the current pandemic we’re in, it’s relevant to everyone,” Moncure said.

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

Michael Coppotelli, the senior associate superintendent of schools with the Archdiocese of New York, said staff is being trained across the school system to benefit its more than 65,000 students.

“It allows them to interact with their teacher more and those one-on-one interactions are what are key to mental health and well being,” Coppotelli said.

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The goal of the training is to identify what’s going on with a student, approach them with empathy, and ultimately get them any help they may need.

There are different programs for grade levels. Parents can also take the classes online. They’re about $30 each. Pricing changes for large groups and schools.

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Jenna DeAngelis