The stress, fear, grief and loneliness of the pandemic has weighed hard on school-aged children. Some 31 % of parents reported worsening emotional health among their children, according to a report by the JED Foundation. In addition, there was a 31% jump in mental health emergency room visits for teens between 12 and 17 from 2019 to 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
And it’s little wonder. At least 43,000 children have lost a parent to COVID, according to a research letter published in JAMA Pediatrics, and an untold number of students have lost other relatives to the pandemic. Countless other students have been isolated from their friends at home or caring for younger siblings while trying to keep up with remote learning.
Recently, California passed a budget that includes more than $4 billion to build up the state’s mental health support infrastructure for children and youth, including $400 million to provide onsite mental health support in schools. Federal legislation known as the Rise from Trauma Act , which was introduced this summer, is also slated to provide funding to schools for mental health support.,
On Aug. 24, a webinar entitled “Rebuilding Community: Considerations for Incorporating Trauma-Informed Practices and Policies as Schools Reopen” brought together teachers, parents and school administrators to discuss strategies for responding to the losses suffered by students and staff alike -- and how to move beyond loss toward healing.
The webinar was sponsored by the California Campaign to Counter Childhood Adversity. The speakers included Mylene Keipp, principal of Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School in Los Angeles, Assistant Principal David Sermeno of Rivera Middle School in Pico Rivera and Tere Flores Onofre, a parent and the director of organizing for Sacramento ACT (Area Congregations Together).
One caring adult
Schools that were able to take the pulse of their students through back-to-school surveys learned early where the greatest need was. At Rivera Middle School, Sermeno said that a survey of 7th graders let him and his fellow administrators know right away how their students were faring. One of the most troubling findings was that only 58% of students said they had at least one caring adult relationship on campus during the 2020 academic year.
“For us, that was really low,” Sermeno said.
To give it more context, Sermeno said in 2017, 63% of 7th graders who were coming back for their second year of instruction at the school said they had a close relationship with an adult at school. This academic year, as students have resumed in-person classes, it’s jumped to 70%. (See the report attached below.)
The school’s survey is grounded in the science of childhood adversity and resilience. If a child has at least one caring adult at or outside of the home, it can help buffer adversity and build resilience, according to the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child.
Sermeno said he’s also observed students expressing more than the usual amount of back-to-school anxiety this fall. “They can bump up against any new experience, like P.E., and feel anxiety because they’re going from elementary school P.E. to changing in a locker room with 50 other students,” he said.
Seeing such anxiety reinforces for Sermeno that these kids need help building their connections with the adults at school. “Because if they don't have that caring adult that they trust here on campus, they may feel more lost,” he said.
Nurturing relationships between students and the teachers and administration are critical to help them heal from what they’ve experienced over the last 18 months, agrees Mylene Keipp of Eagle Rock in Los Angeles. She said at her school, which serves 6th through 12th graders, their operative approach has always been what they refer to as “psychological first aid”: listen, protect, connect, model and teach.
Students were learning entirely remotely until April, when the school offered a hybrid of remote and in-person classes, Keipp explained. The school found new ways to reach out when everyone was on lockdown during the pandemic.
“We found out students were sick, we sent cards. We sent masks. We found out families were grieving, we sent condolence cards and gift cards from the community,” said Keipp. “It was just really beautiful, just trying to stay connected.”
Keipp fully recognizes that she and her staff have to take care of their own needs if they are to effectively support students and each other. She offers a personal example.
“In early April my father nearly had a heart attack and needed a quadruple bypass. And I was open and honest with our faculty. I told them that I can't be here, that I need to go to San Diego and be with my family. And they understand, that when I say [priorities are in this order] health, family, work -- and I say it daily since I've been here for seven years -- if we're not attending to our own families, what are we doing?”
A multi-year battle
While Keipp jokingly refers to herself as the chief morale officer of her school, she’s outspoken about the burning need for mental health staff on site in schools. This was true before COVID-19, but even more so now as students and staff grapple with the fallout from the pandemic and 18 months of isolation. Fighting for mental health support for the school’s 2,200 students has been a multi-year battle, as it has for numerous schools around the country. For Keipp, it was a gradual but steady process of advocating – one psychiatric social worker for one day a week, then two days a week.
Now with the new funding included in the state budget, “we're getting two full-time psychiatric social workers, five days a week, which is huge for us,” she said with satisfaction.
Sermeno says that the new state funding allows his school to have two full-time academic counselors and a full-time mental health counselor. The mental health counselor will have interns who can also work with the students.
The school still makes referrals to outside agencies, “but what I have been able to see here since we opened on Aug. 11 is that we’ve had students with some major kinds of panic, moments of anxiety, and they’ve been able to come here right away and have people to talk to,” he said.
“I can’t read your mind”
In the aftermath of remote learning, Keipp and Sermeno are trying to figure out how to best support their colleagues, staff, and students – and how to get everyone talking.
Keipp, for example, realized that she needed to ask the Eagle Rock teachers and staff what they needed. As an icebreaker for conversation, she showed a TED talk interview with leadership expert Simon Sinek entitled How to discover your “why” in difficult times. She then asked teachers and staff to talk about their excitement, their fears, and what support they needed. “I can't read your mind,” she told them.
Teachers and staff at Rivera Middle School convened a meeting to talk about concerns. “I think a lot of concerns [among teachers] is about their own health and safety and what they’re taking back to their families with this rise in COVID cases.” Sermeno said.
Teachers and staff will be able to make appointments with the mental health staff if they need it, he added.
Flores Onofre, from Sacramento ACT, said her organization surveyed students, parents and educators about what kinds of support they would benefit from going back to school. Now she’s focused on peer support and equity.
“I think there needs to be therapy and counseling,” she said. “But I also think there needs to be peer mentoring, peer healing circles, culturally-relevant support.”
Sacramento ACT was one of about 40 stakeholders from around the state, including community-based research and advocacy groups as well as university-based research centers, that prepared a brief entitled Reimagine and Rebuild: Restarting Schools with Equity at the Center.
Involving students in the process of healing and support is central, according to the speakers. Keipp, for example, had students in each grade create videos explaining their own needs.
“Overwhelmingly, the students said they wanted to know that somebody was going to tell them that it’s OK, that somebody was going to check in with them,” she said.