America’s youth are experiencing a mental health crisis
Prioritize Mental Health in School Reopening Plans
In February I took my ninth grade daughter back-to-school shopping for a new lunch bag. Her private high school re-opened for “hybrid” instruction after the global pandemic forced school closures nearly a year ago. Two days a week, masked and socially-distanced, she takes a few of her classes in-person along with other students who have opted-in to the hybrid program.
My daughter was both anxious and excited about returning to the classroom. Her feelings had nothing to do with safety protocols or adequate ventilation. She was nervous about meeting other students and finding her way around campus — navigating spaces and interpersonal dynamics that make school, and just about everything, worthwhile. Like the vast majority of youth across the country, my daughter has struggled with the isolation wrought by the pandemic and school closure.
I am the co-founder and executive director of Downtown College Prep, a charter school network that prepares low-income, mostly Latinx students, to be the first in their family to graduate from college. Our four schools have been closed to in-person instruction since March 2020.
Students across the San Francisco Bay Area experience inequitable access to in-person instruction. A recent survey conducted by the Bay Area News Group showed that 100% of school districts within communities with a $200,000 annual median household income offer some form of in-person instruction. In contrast, only 12% of districts with an annual median household income of $100,000 or less are open for in-person instruction.
Now that vaccines are available to educators across the state, there is increased momentum to get teachers and students back to school. After weeks of negotiations, Governor Newsom signed Senate Bill 86 offering California public schools $2B in financial incentives to reopen campuses. School districts and charter operators are working with teachers’ unions to get agreements that conform to timetables and funding requirements outlined in the bill.
Much attention has been paid to the impact of learning loss as a result of the pandemic. Meanwhile there is a crisis of mental health that has detrimental long-term effects for our youth. While my daughter and the young people I’ve dedicated my career to serving have very different lived realities, research confirms that the pandemic has impacted the mental health of youth across the country. America’s Promise reports that students are experiencing “collective trauma” regardless of race, whether their parents were born in the United States, or whether they live in a rural or urban area. One in four young people is feeling disconnected from their school communities and caring adults outside of their family. More than half of all students surveyed are concerned about their families’ physical or emotional health. A review of studies examining the linkage between children’s mental health and school closure confirms that increased screen time and social media, loss of physical activity, and unhealthy eating patterns have further contributed to negative health impacts. Post-traumatic, anxiety, and depression disorders are anticipated in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona includes “addressing the emotional needs of students” in his five-point plan for reopening schools. He writes, “With the right support, students are remarkably resilient. They have risen to the COVID challenge in ways that inspire me as an educator and a father.” President Biden’s pick for Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, is committed to studying the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health and working to promote and adopt school-based solutions. “I think that we will be learning over the years ahead just how deeply this pandemic has affected our children,” Murthy said in a recent interview with CBS.
We can’t succeed in recovering learning losses sustained during the pandemic if we don’t also address students’ mental health. Schools will need to prioritize a strategic, integrated, and sustained approach to responding to this crisis. As a mother and an educator, these priorities come to mind:
— Secure and sustain increased funding for additional mental health providers in schools.
— Conduct mental health screenings. Project Cal-Well, of the California Department of Education, provides a practical summary of how to approach screening in schools.
— Respond to the mental health needs of educators, especially those serving students most impacted by COVID-19. Secondary trauma, as a result of compassion fatigue, can have lasting effects on educators’ well-being. Systems and tools to support educators’ mental health must also address systemic racism so that schools can support and sustain teachers of color in the profession.
— Develop a plan for social-emotional learning and mental health that can be incorporated into existing school accountability tools. The Roadmap for Reopening Schools published by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is a robust planning tool with input from leading organizations such as WestEd, the National Equity Project, and many others.
— Launch initiatives to re-engage students who have high rates of absenteeism or who may be missing, and ensure they are supported by an advisor or teacher they trust. Bellwether Education’s report Missing in the Margins lays bare the attendance crisis impacting over three million disadvantaged youth across the country. Achievement Preparatory Academy in Washington D.C. has implemented a house visit protocol led by their “Culture Team” in an effort to re-engage students and families with high rates of absenteeism.
— Rethink how we use time in our schools. One of the allowable uses for Senate Bill 86 funding is extending instructional time through longer school years, longer school days, and intersessions. Chiefs for Change and Johns Hopkins University promote replacing the traditional agrarian calendar with more flexible models that better serve students’ learning needs.
My daughter’s experience brought me painfully close to the isolation and struggle young people are experiencing across the country, which is why as an educator I hope we can use this opportunity of school reopening to reframe the role of schools in mental health and wellness. Let’s create the conditions for young people and the educators who serve them to meet one another — and the moment — with care, hope and resilience for the future.
Author’s Note: The burden of responding to this mental health crisis cannot rest entirely on school systems and educators. States and regions need to build coalitions representative of government, non-profit, philanthropy, and investors to implement immediate and long-range solutions. I hope to write more on this topic as more state-wide and regional coalitions emerge.