The recent Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare many inequities in America’s public school system. Unequal access to technology and the internet, food insecurity exacerbated by family job loss, and heightened risks of adverse childhood experiences caused by fallouts from the recent crisis will disproportionately harm the most vulnerable students.

Of course, the pandemic has affected students and families from nearly every region and social, economic, and cultural background. Nevertheless, with schools across the country closed for weeks and months, and families and caregivers assuming unexpected homeschooling obligations, opportunity, and achievement gaps may become even wider—and more widespread—than before.

To make matters worse, an ensuing economic downturn could dramatically impact school district budgets, especially lower-income districts and those most dependent on state-level funding. Districts will need to quickly and strategically plan how to address these widening gaps because of extended school closures while potentially relying on far fewer resources from which to draw.

But those are not the only problems district leaders may face in the coming school year. Higher unemployment rates mean higher student poverty rates, homelessness, and transience, along with uneven attendance and increasing levels of childhood trauma.

Children with histories of trauma will become even more vulnerable through elevated family stresses from income and job losses and shortages of adequate medical or mental health care. These children potentially will have greater exposure to mental illness, domestic violence, suicide, and substance abuse.

School leaders should be prepared to deal with higher numbers of students showing up with dramatically greater social and emotional needs. District leaders will need to ensure that schools are adequately prepared to handle potentially far greater student needs with potentially fewer available financial resources.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) programs are no substitute for individual counseling and mental health supports, but they could be effective at meeting many of these needs in the coming school year.

Evidence of positive impacts

Although it might be tempting to put SEL on the chopping block, district leaders should be mindful of the potential benefits many of these programs provide when contemplating budgetary trade-offs. A growing body of research suggests that the explicit development of social and emotional competencies can lead to measurable improvements in academic performance, attendance, and behavioral outcomes, including lower disciplinary incidents.

A frequently cited meta-analysis of school-based SEL programs by the Society for Research in Child Development showed that enrolled children had better outcomes on a range of social, emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes compared to nonenrolled children.

Other studies have suggested that SEL benefits accrue to students with and without emotional or behavioral problems and regardless of students’ race, socioeconomic background, or geographic locale. As districts prepare to reopen school doors in the fall, investing in effective—cost-effective—methods of supporting the SEL needs of students should be a priority.

However, with the likelihood of increased social and emotional needs, it’s important to recognize that implementing SEL needn’t be an unwelcome “add-on” expense during a period of fiscal belt-tightening.

There are considerable economic benefits to SEL. A 2015 study by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education estimated that $1 spent on SEL programming could potentially yield $11 on average in long-range benefits. They include reductions in crime, better mental health outcomes, and higher lifetime earnings.

More importantly, SEL can be implemented in a cost-effective manner. It needn’t involve expensive programs, although it may require targeted professional development to ensure effective implementation.

To estimate costs associated with different aspects of implementation, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) created the “SEL Financial Stability Toolkit.” The toolkit was developed through CASEL’s work with four school districts to estimate costs involved in planning, professional development, and sustaining new programs.

Additionally, districts may be eligible for federal funds for SEL programs through Title IV, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act to support “safe and healthy” school environments.

Is it intentional?

SEL is being done already in schools. Daily interactions with students by faculty, staff, and administration inherently send messages that affect their social and emotional well-being. The question is whether students’ social and emotional needs are addressed intentionally and systematically to strengthen their capacities for self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision-making, among other competencies.

Although evidence-based, well-implemented social and emotional practices can contribute more broadly to a positive school culture, they are also essential to addressing the needs of students facing significant trauma, mental health, and psychosocial challenges.

To be clear, students experiencing trauma and toxic stress may need more intensive supports than the majority of students who benefit from well-implemented SEL. Schools should provide tiered systems of support and additional interventions for those students.

However, the prospect of fewer resources for additional staff, such as counselors and mental health professionals, to meet growing needs looms. Effective schoolwide SEL practices may be one of the most important and efficient ways to meet those needs in the face of budgetary constraints and widening inequalities wrought in the wake of the current crisis.

Keith McNamara (kmcnamara@nsba.org) is a public policy fellow with NSBA’s Equity and Member Services.

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