Provide Mental Health Supports for Students and Staff
Schools, districts and states struggled to fully support the mental health needs of students, staff and parents prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. Schools were stretched thin, with limited access to mental health professionals and high student-to-counselor rates. In the midst of the pandemic, mental health concerns have grown exponentially. Reopening will require districts and schools to ramp up support for students and staff. This challenge will be magnified by potential schedule changes, limited funding and learning losses during the spring and summer months.
SREB offers the following four actions districts and schools can take to support the mental health and well-being of students and staff as they plan to reopen schools.
1. Balance a focus on academic and social-emotional supports.
With so much classroom time lost this spring, educators may feel an immediate urge to accelerate learning and provide academic supports that catch students up. Crises like Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters around the world have shown students do best when educators focus on providing a combination of academic and social-emotional supports.
Doris Voitier, superintendent of St. Bernard Parish Schools in Louisiana, a community that was almost totally destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, knows too well the challenges of recovering from a disaster. She emphasizes the importance of a balanced approach to disaster recovery: “Take care of the immediate needs of people first. Help with their basic needs before you address academic needs,” she told SREB’s task force. Schools and districts will be challenged to find the balance between academic acceleration and ensuring mental health.
As students return to school, many will have experienced many different forms of trauma — neglect, abuse, food scarcity, the death or illness of loved ones, or loss of income in their families. Multiple states have reopening plans that intentionally make addressing these forms of trauma through mental health supports an integral part of student learning.
Simple actions that schools and districts can take include:
Provide hope first. Make the reopening of school as positive an experience as possible. Although focusing on safety and cleanliness will be key, an overemphasis on these concerns may magnify underlying mental health issues among students, parents and staff. Look to businesses for examples of how to treat reopening, and design reopening events that create a welcoming environment.
Look and listen for signs of distress. Make sure all staff members are prepared to look for and recognize indicators of underlying mental health problems. Schools will need help from states and districts to identify and adopt curricula, protocols and tools for supporting and assessing the mental health and social-emotional needs of students and staff. Adopt protocols or tools that include physical and mental health screening information or simple questioning strategies that can be used in any classroom. National organizations offer tools that help teachers and leaders identify grief, trauma and turmoil. School re-entry guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, includes recommendations for addressing students’ behavioral health and providing emotional support. Schools and districts can also provide ongoing professional learning opportunities that help staff recognize and react to these issues in students and adults.
Integrate wellness into the curriculum. Make ongoing discussions about mental health part of the curriculum in every classroom. Teach resilience and emphasize students’ ability to overcome obstacles. Listen to what students have to say about their experiences and share these insights with school reopening task forces or planning groups. Members of SREB’s K-12 Education Recovery Task Force report that schools that had the greatest success implementing virtual learning this spring focused on developing “grit” in students. These same skills will benefit students as schools reopen.
Ensure every student has an adult connection at school. Implement advisor programs that pair each student with a caring adult at school who knows their situation and needs, checks on them for signs of distress, provides support and can act as a link between school and home. Enlist the support of bus drivers, cafeteria workers, coaches, office staff and other school personnel who know students well.
Avoid minimizing programs that give students hope. Ensure that students continue to have access to fine arts, electives, career and technical education programs, and extracurricular and cocurricular activities. Offerings like these may be the one thing that keeps at-risk students engaged and interested in coming to school.
Continue to expand social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practices. Avoid the temptation to focus solely on accelerating learning in academics as students return to school. Prior to the pandemic, many schools and districts had implemented plans to address students’ social-emotional development. These plans should be expanded and cultivated.
Differentiate social-emotional learning and mental health supports based on students’ developmental stages and unique needs. Young children, for example, may be more reliant on their family structure; older children and teens tend to seek the support of their peer group. Only children may be struggling due to a lack of connection with peers during lengthy school closures and stay-at-home orders.
Create opportunities to build students’ self-esteem. Consider providing programs and opportunities for students to gain a sense of control over the current situation by helping others. Expand service learning opportunities, have older students support younger ones, empower student organizations to help in the community, and sponsor other activities that help students feel better through acts of service.
Georgia has developed a Health Barriers to Learning protocol that includes physical and mental health screening information. State officials believe the protocol will help identify students who are grappling with issues sooner. Georgia also brought in national mental health experts to train all counselors and student support specialists.
2. Enlist community partners to provide mental health support.
Looming budget cuts will magnify the shortages of mental health professionals and counselors schools faced before the pandemic. This fact, combined with an anticipated increase in student and staff mental health issues when schools reopen, highlights the need for states and districts to explore new avenues for involving mental health agencies and service providers in planning to reopen schools; training teachers and school personnel to use protocols and tools to recognize and respond to signs of distress or trauma; and providing mental health services to students, parents, school personnel and the larger community.
Involve the mental health community in planning to reopen schools. Seek ways to expand mental health supports for students and staff by asking local mental health providers to offer telehealth options to districts and schools and provide professional learning that helps teachers recognize and respond to potential mental health issues.
Tap into the expertise of local, regional and state mental health providers. Ask mental health providers to offer physical and mental health webinars for teachers, students and parents. Mental health partners can also help identify resources for families and assist local school districts in other ways.
Coordinate with non-educational service agencies that work with students and families, such as child protective services. Plan and convene meetings to determine how to coordinate supports among agencies.
Reach out to local, regional or national companies and experts for additional support. Create lists of national, state and local mental health agencies, service providers and resources that schools and districts can use to address grief, loss and trauma. Publish these lists on state, district and school websites and add links to mental health supports and information on the learning management systems used by students and staff. Seek support from postsecondary partners, such as counseling psychology and school counseling programs at area colleges and universities, that can help assist students in distress. Seek national mental health experts who can train all counselors and student support specialists.
Click here for a list of national mental health resources compiled by SREB.
Expand telehealth services and other innovative supports while ensuring personal privacy. Consider adopting or expanding access to telehealth in isolated or impoverished communities that lack access to mental health resources or school-based personnel.
The Georgia Department of Education is working with the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, Mental Health America of Georgia, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Resilient Georgia, the Carter Center Mental Health Programs School-Based Behavioral Health initiative, Georgia Appleseed Law Center, Georgia Family Connection Partnership, and the departments of Public Health and Community Health.
As part of its school reopening plan, the Kentucky Department of Education created guidance for Supporting Student and Staff Wellness that includes strategies for addressing grief, loss and traumatic stress among students and staff, preparing staff to recognize and respond to grief and loss, creating safe and caring school environments, incorporating a “trauma lens” to understand students’ traumatic experiences, and building resilience. The guide also includes information on national hotlines and mental health services.
Florida sent all teachers in the state a set of indicators to help them identify students in distress during remote learning. Florida also added buttons and contact information in its primary learning management systems for students and staff to seek help. Using Adverse Childhood Experience resources, the state also engaged postsecondary partners to help assist students in distress.
In South Carolina, mental health clinicians are a part of the state’s school reopening task force.
3. Address the mental health and wellness of adults.
A nationwide scan offers a few examples of efforts to support the mental health of faculty and staff. Like students, members of the school community have experienced illness, loss, trauma and hardships. Districts and schools can adopt many of the strategies suggested for students for their staff as well.
- Identify struggling staff early. Focus on looking and listening for signs of distress. The same tools and indicators used to identify struggling students can be used with adults.
- Engage Human Resources personnel and community health professionals in planning to support struggling staff. Establish plans for supporting struggling staff members while ensuring the privacy of their personal health information. District or state HR personnel can help address privacy issues in early planning. Community mental health professionals can open up new avenues for local support, whether in person or through telehealth services.
- Focus on school climate and culture. Place an intensive focus in school reopening plans on creating a positive learning climate and cultivating the mental health of all staff. School leaders can make the building welcoming, promote positive aspects of the school, engage staff in owning efforts to build a positive culture and provide supports.
Kentucky released a guidance document that includes planning considerations for the social-emotional well-being of students and staff when schools reopen. The document assumes that all students, parents and staff will have experienced anxiety, stress, illness or loss.
4. Plan for the long haul.
Reopening schools and ongoing recovery efforts will take a long time. Anticipated budget cuts may make recovery even slower. Quick fixes and silver bullets will not work. Just as test-prep tools typically have only a limited impact on achievement, short-term solutions to student and staff mental health issues will likely fall short as recovery efforts move forward.
Go slow to go fast with innovation. Engage faculty, staff and even students in the reopening planning process to foster the sharing of innovative ideas. However, don’t overwhelm faculty and students with many new ways of doing things when schools reopen. Focus on positivity and celebrate and build on early successes.
Build and share a virtual resource library. Ensure that access to support is ready to go — and easy to find — when schools reopen. Add mental health resources, links and wellness tips to websites, course syllabi, weekly newsletters and materials shared with parent-teacher organizations and associations of teachers, school boards and superintendents. Include information on locally available resources as well as any school-specific supports.
Keep score. Create wellness checks to monitor student and staff wellness and use that information to plan supports. Consider conducting periodic wellness checks, like climate surveys, that seek to uncover potential mental health issues.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a traumatic event. Schools and districts need to react to this crisis like they would other tragedies and disasters. Schools and districts should balance the need to accelerate academic learning while ensuring they also address the mental health of students and staff, expand their collaboration with community partners, take care of their employees and plan for the long-term ramifications of recovery. By using these four strategies to guide their work, districts and schools can develop clear plans to support the mental health and well-being of students and staff.