Social-emotional learning (SEL) and family wellness have been embedded in the curriculum of the Washoe County School District for nearly a decade. So, when the northern Nevada school system closed its 107 schools in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic and shifted to distance learning, the continuation of SEL lessons became a priority.

The uncertainty associated with the school closures—from navigating online learning, to child care demands, to health and safety fears—was stressful on families, recalls Superintendent Kristen McNeill. As district leaders mapped the distance learning plan for Washoe’s 64,000 students, a key piece of the discussion was “how we can integrate an aspect to include SEL lessons,” McNeill says.

Months later, feedback from schools and families suggest that the daily SEL lessons offered opportunities “to build strong relationships to talk about emotional wellness,” says Trish Shaffer, Washoe’s SEL coordinator. “Having those practices and opportunities has really carried our students, our families, and our educators through this difficult time.”

Now, as the district looks to reopen for the new school year, SEL, along with a support system and other resources that contribute to good mental health and wellness, is considered essential in welcoming back students and staff.

“The number one priority, beyond the physical safety, beyond the social distancing, beyond the PPE [personal protective equipment] needs,” McNeill says, “is going to have to be about the mental health of our students and the mental health of our staff.”

Eyes and ears open

Many students will be excited to return to the familiarity of in-person learning—even if it’s for a limited number of hours or days per week. Others may struggle to acclimate to a more hurried pace, or to interact with peers after months of schooling and socializing in isolation, says Kirsten Myers. She coordinates mental health and mental wellness supports for Kent ISD, a regional education service agency serving nearly 100,000 students in southwestern Michigan. Still other students may be anxious about a predicted second wave of the coronavirus, ongoing economic hardships for their families, even the reappearance of remote learning.

“The fear of the unknown is difficult to negotiate and navigate,” Myers says. “There’s going to be a continued need to check in with our students.”

Even a simple check-in, such as asking students to rate how they are feeling emotionally from 1 to 10 on their fingers, can serve as a useful tool to gauge how students are doing, says Lauren Mangus, assistant professor of educational psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and director of the school and community psychology program. Not all screenings need to be intensive to be valuable, she says. Various indicators can be used to help signal if more may be going on. “We have to keep our eyes and ears open.”

When Health Sciences High and Middle College, a San Diego Unified School District charter school, moved to online instruction, teachers made it a habit to mention every student by name at least once in every virtual class, says Douglas Fisher, professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University and dean of faculty affairs at Health Sciences High. He believes this habit also will be useful when in-person instruction resumes.

Full spectrum of needs

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the important role that schools play in supporting the mental health and wellness of students, says Brandon Stratford, who studies education and youth development issues for the nonprofit research organization Child Trends.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as many as 1 in 5 children and adolescents suffers from a diagnosable emotional, mental, or behavioral disorder in a given year. However, less than 20 percent receive treatment. Among children who get needed services, an estimated seven out of 10 access those services through schools.

When classes resume, there are likely to be increased reports of children having been exposed to maltreatment, domestic violence, food insecurity, and homelessness related to COVID-19, especially in families where those conditions were already a risk, Stratford says. Racial inequalities, often driven by systemic racism, increase the risk of exposure to these traumatic conditions, commonly referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), he adds.

Decades of research have shown that ACEs exposure can interfere with a child’s behavior and ability to learn in school, and potentially compromise physical and emotional health in adulthood.

In Washoe, district counselors, social workers, and psychologists, working with public and private partner organizations, already were grappling with a series of traumatic incidents before the global pandemic closed schools, says Katherine Loudon, counseling coordinator. She points to an unexplained spike in the number of students struck by vehicles in the Reno-Sparks community, along with multiple cases of student suicide in the school district.

During the pandemic, alerts also were raised about possible adolescent sex trafficking. Add in the district’s work to close equity gaps and reach “the children that we are trying as hard as we can not to leave behind,” and “we know there are issues we really need to focus on when we return,” Loudon says.

No matter what environment students live in, no matter what emotional experiences they’ve had, educators should expect to see a “full spectrum” of emotional needs when students return, says Karen Niemi, president of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a nonprofit that works to advance and implement SEL practices and policies. (Washoe has been a partner with the CASEL Collaborating Districts Initiative since 2011.) Students “are going to be in a moment of transition. And we know that transitions, even under the best of circumstances, can be really challenging for kids.”

Make that connection

Acknowledging the need for more mental health support services in Tennessee’s most at-risk schools, Gov. Bill Lee announced in February a proposal to create a $250 million K-12 mental health trust fund. In March, that proposal was scratched as the state braced for pandemic-related budget cuts.

Shelby County Schools, which has operated a comprehensive school-based mental health center since 1969, “would definitely be able to utilize any additional funding to provide mental health supports,” says Angela Hargrave, executive director of student equity, enrollment, and discipline for the 106,000-student system in Memphis.

Throughout the coronavirus closure, the district’s team of licensed mental health therapists, psychologists, and social workers continued to work with as many students and families as it could. They were assisting a community already affected by high rates of poverty, gun violence, and associated mental health conditions, Hargrave says. “So many of the things that impact a large community seem to be impacting our community at an even higher rate.”

a green ribbon

To help teachers better understand the effects of ACEs on children’s brain development and behavior, and how to effectively use classroom management strategies to support affected students, the district began providing ACEs awareness training for all staff last year. It will incorporate the training into its virtual professional development this summer.

The district created a live SEL support telephone line that allows callers to speak directly with a staff therapist or counselor. It plans to continue the hotline into the new school year. Early in the pandemic, the team felt “disconnected” from some in the school community who might need its support, Hargrave says. With the phone line, “we were able to make that connection and received some calls that we felt were critical. We were really able to assist families.”

The phone-based resource, along with a 24-hour hotline featuring recorded behavioral health information, was valuable because it supported all families and staff, including those without internet access, Hargrave says.

“We will need to provide really thorough information to parents to ease some of their concerns about having students reenter,” she adds. “We need to make sure our plan for reentry is clear and robust and well-communicated.”

Fatigue and staffing shortages

Reestablishing routines, structures, and supports that provide a sense of connectedness and community will go a long way to aiding every student’s emotional wellness when schools reopen, says Wayne State’s Mangus. Equally vital will be addressing the emotional wellness of school personnel.

When teaching and learning went online at Health Sciences High, attention grew around the importance of teacher self-care. This included having a daily routine, personal time, connecting with professional colleagues, asking for help when needed, and staying alert to signs of compassion fatigue, says Fisher. Those habits should continue to be central to teacher and staff support this fall, especially the awareness of mental and emotional strain, he says.

In a 2017 survey by the American Federation of Teachers—long before COVID-19 upended life as we knew it—61 percent of 4,000 educators and school staff reported being stressed always or often.

“Compassion fatigue and burnout among teachers is real. We have to be on the lookout for that,” Mangus says. And as staff heads back to school, it’s important to remember that “many may have been directly touched by the pandemic in some way, whether knowing someone who’s passed away or has had some physical difficulty from being sick. There’s also the grief and loss of our independence from the way life was.”

Such experiences could result in severe staffing shortages this fall, exacerbating workload fatigue:

  • A May USA Today/Ipsos poll of 505 K-12 teachers finds one in five say they likely will not return to reopened classrooms, including a quarter of respondents over age 55.
  • A May survey by the Education Week Research Center of 1,907 educators (teachers, principals, and district leaders) finds 12 percent say the pandemic may spur them to leave the profession even though they were not planning to do so before the crisis; 36 percent say they have a physical condition associated with suffering adverse effects of the coronavirus; and 7 percent are age 65 or older, which the CDC indicates is a risk factor for severe illness.
  • A 2019 survey of 424 secondary principals conducted by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Association of Secondary School Principals finds 42 percent of principals were considering leaving their position, citing heavy workloads, low compensation, and lack of evaluation practices.

Managing expectations

Amy Grosso had only been in the newly created position of director of behavioral health for the 51,000-student Round Rock Independent School District in Central Texas for three months when the coronavirus pandemic closed schools. Among the projects she and her department initiated to support the school community were staff-only wellness sessions. At one middle school, “I talked a lot about managing expectations of themselves,” Grosso says. “That they can’t fix all of this. That it’s unreasonable to think that they can.”

That message will continue as schools reopen in whatever form that takes. On her department’s to-do list: continue training school staff in Youth Mental Health First Aid, a program that teaches skills needed to respond to the signs of mental illness and substance use. It “focuses on the fact that it’s not a teacher’s job to fix these problems,” Grosso says. “It’s your job to know the signs and symptoms and get a student to the next place of help.”

As schools look to a new semester, it will require “conversations among the district, staff, students, parents, and partner organizations about what mental wellness means for your community, what it looks like, and how it can be supported,” says Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association.

“It has to be multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder, and because we’re all learning as we go, it’s going to have to be revisited, so make sure it’s a flexible plan. And make sure everyone’s voice is heard,” Cook says.

Although concerns about loss of instructional time and academic gaps are critical for school leaders, “making sure students have what they need to be resilient and maintain social-emotional wellness is, I think, maybe even more important, says Shelby County’s Hargrave. “If we focus on making sure that we protect the social-emotional health and wellness of our students, they will be able to recoup any instructional time loss.

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2020 State of the Association

Full of challenge and change, 2020 was like no other year. NSBA's State of the Association provides a snapshot of the association's advocacy and member services work as well as our ongoing transformation.