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The Kids Are Not All Right: Concerns for Mental Health Mount as Schools Reopen

Students and educators say the needs of traumatized students must be addressed before real learning can take place.

Students wait in a socially distanced line to enter Pasadena High School on April 20, 2021, during their first day of in-person learning since the pandemic closed schools over a year ago, in Pasadena, California.

Carla Rivera, a 12th grader at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, New York, is relieved to be back in school. “Being home was stressful,” she says. “I was watching my 10-year-old brother and trying to keep him on track with his school work. Then, when my mom got home from work at 4:00, I’d begin my assignments but they piled on top of each other and I felt like it was impossible to stay caught up.” Thankfully, Rivera says, she is now on target to graduate in June and plans to study zoological science in college beginning this fall.

Like Rivera, Noah Fishman, a senior at New Paltz High School in upstate New York, was eager to return to in-person classes when it became possible to do so. “I wanted to feel normal,” he told Truthout. “Even when in-person school is boring, it’s better than boring online school.”

Both Rivera and Fishman describe schooling during the pandemic as “chaotic” and report that uncertainty and angst have become their everyday companions. “There’s been more drinking and drug use,” Fishman says, “and everyone is really stressed. It’s become second nature, as if being anxious all the time is the way it’s supposed to be. I wish our teachers would tell us at least once a day that everything will be OK, that they’re here for us and want us to do well overall. It’s important that they remind us of this and create an environment that is supportive and caring.”

Experts agree and say that attention to students’ mental health will be increasingly important as more and more schools reopen.

Indeed, the pandemic has caused mental health to take a dramatic nosedive for just about everyone. Since the lockdown began, suicide has become the second leading cause of death for adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17, with tweens and teens reporting trouble sleeping, focusing and feeling connected to family and friends. Experts stress that these symptoms are unlikely to go away by themselves — something that schools will have to face head-on.

As of February, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told schools that they could reopen as long as students and staff wore masks, maintained at least three feet of social distancing, and kept facilities clean, approximately 46 percent of the nation’s 98,158 public schools have gone back to five days a week of in-person instruction. Since then, slightly more than one-third of students — 34 percent — have returned and this percentage is expected to increase as more people get vaccinated and the virus recedes.

But can schools return to the way things were before the pandemic, or will new models be needed to address the social and emotional needs of students, most of whom have been taking classes online — typically with cameras off to protect their privacy — for more than a year?

Making Real Space for Mental Health

“We know that the way children learn and develop has a lot to do with the environment that exists around them,” Justina Schlund, senior director of content and field learning at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a 27-year-old organization devoted to increasing the emotional intelligence of children, adolescents, teens and adults. “It is not just content, but how students engage with the academic material.”

What’s more, she says, learning requires students to be able to concentrate, a task that is extremely difficult when they are traumatized by illness; abuse; food, housing or job insecurity; or grief over the death of family members or friends. Many are also simply grieving the loss of life before COVID.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) estimates that prior to the pandemic, about 20 percent of U.S. kids experienced some emotional difficulties before completing high school. “We now expect these rates to double or triple after COVID,” their website warns. “Strategies to ensure that students feel physically and emotionally safe at school” are imperative, NASP concludes.

Recognition of this has pushed the federal government to allocate resources to help those most at risk, including $800 million to support homeless students and provide wraparound academic and counseling services to enable them to remain enrolled. Other still-pending legislation includes H.R. 614, The Put School Counselors Where They’re Needed Act, which will fund supports to increase high school graduation rates. Also pending is the Transfer, Heal and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy (THRIVE) Act, which will provide funding for more than 2 million jobs in education and the care economy.

But funding is just one piece of what is needed.

Jessica Trubek, a social worker at Lyons Community School in Brooklyn, New York, works with students in grades six through 12, and while she supports increased funding for additional social workers and guidance counselors, she says that schedules must shift to prioritize mental health concerns.

“Where does mental health fit into the school day?” Trubek asks. Right now, she says, she has to fit counseling sessions into a student’s remote or actual study hall period, or see them during their lunch break or when they are supposed to be working independently. “We constantly hear how important mental health is,” she says, “but there is literally no space for us to counsel the students or teach them about mental health. Physical education is mandated, but educating students about mental health is not, even though it’s right up there with math, English and science in terms of importance.”

Valuing Mental Wellbeing

Lesley Koplow, director of the Center for Emotionally Responsive Practice at the Bank Street College of Education, agrees with Trubek. “Some schools see a dichotomy between instructional and noninstructional time. So-called noninstructional time — where we talk about feelings, experiences and different ways of responding to a particular situation — gives kids feelings of self-worth, of being valued and cared for. Foundationally, it allows kids to be unburdened, so they’re able to take in new learning. Schools undermine students’ capacity to understand new material if they undervalue noninstructional time,” she told Truthout.

Using the arts, as well as English, history and social studies classes to give students a chance to process information and try to make sense of the world can be extremely helpful, she says. “If students had something happen that was frightening or traumatic, that experience will take up the front of their minds and they’ll tune out in class. Teachers can be developmental partners to make sure that kids feel like they’re in good company. In younger kids, teachers can use play, drawing, reading and writing to bring together academic, social and emotional life and invite self-expression.”

But time for support and noninstructional development may not be readily available. What of those students who are expected to take, and pass, standardized tests within weeks of returning to school?

David Marshall, a social studies teacher and varsity track coach at Chicago’s Carl Schurz High School, told Truthout, “my Advanced Placement class had to jump right back into academics the second we began meeting in person because we have just six weeks to prepare for the AP exam. Remote learning was slower than in-person learning so we need to press through in order to be ready. The AP tests are run by the College Board and they have already been pushed to later in the school year than is normal, so we had to make the transition back immediately.”

Marshall’s non-AP classes were able to take more time to process what they’d been through. He says some students opened up about depression and anxiety while others wanted to dive right back into schoolwork. “It’s been difficult,” he says. “As a teacher I want to be understanding but I need to strike a balance with every kid to meet their academic and emotional needs.”

Not surprisingly, Marshall reports that he is exhausted. He’s not the only one: Bank Street College’s Lesley Koplow says that burnout is pervasive.

“Teaching is the most intense, demanding and amazing job, but to do it well, a teacher has to be smart, present and fully attuned to what they are feeling,” Koplow told Truthout. “Your whole childhood comes back and teachers need time and space to connect with each other. If they don’t, they tend to get sick or burn out and there is then turnover every five minutes.”

Importance of Training Adults

Indeed, the pandemic has reminded us that adult mental health is a key component of successful education. This is why the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (YCEI) focuses on training school personnel — the largely unheralded teachers, paraprofessionals and administrators who work in pre-K through 12th grade classrooms throughout the country — to be more attentive to the impact of emotions on classroom dynamics. This training helps adults understand how emotions and trauma impact students’ ability to learn. It also emphasizes that adults need care, too.

“The changes of the last year did not leave a lot of time for us, as adults, to engage in self-care or even take the time to think about and manage what we’re feeling,” Nicole Elbertson, YCEI’s director of content and communications, told Truthout. “When we are stressed, upset or scared, where does this leave us when we have to deal with our children and students and their needs? We have a phrase we use, ‘Name it to tame it.’ It’s the idea that it’s only when we’re aware of what we’re feeling that we’re able to manage those feelings. If we’re feeling overwhelming fear or anxiety, what are we doing to handle it?”

In essence, she adds, adults must address their own issues even as they’re helping students address theirs.

This isn’t a new idea, Elbertson says, but it’s now more widely accepted than it used to be. Reams of research, she continues, confirms that if a student is grappling with things like abuse, death, homelessness, homophobia, hunger, police violence, racism or sexism, academics will likely end up on a back burner.

That said, she is encouraged that YCEI trainings have been in high demand since the start of the pandemic. “Even before COVID, schools had begun to recognize that emotions impact everything that happens in a classroom and that if we help students handle their emotions, they’ll be in a better place to learn and achieve,” she says. “COVID, as hard as it has been, taught us that we can leverage our emotions and develop a more flexible approach to teaching and learning.”

The stakes could not be higher.

Psychologists have called untreated trauma the underbelly of violence. We also know that not every kid bounces back from negative experiences. As we learned after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, once schools reopened and structure and routine returned, “many children were resilient, regaining their previous level of psychological functioning. However, a significant minority of children who were more vulnerable had difficulty.”

Educators expect this to be true of students returning to school in the aftermath of COVID-19. And since we know that neither students nor teachers can leave their emotions outside the schoolhouse door, their ability to process their experiences will have everything to do with how well they function in the years to come.

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