Back to Skills

Schools Brace for Mental Health Challenges During COVID-19 and Civil Unrest

Experts discuss trauma, social and emotional development

Back to Skills

As schools nationwide gear up for a new school year during the pandemic — whether virtually or in person — meeting the social, emotional and mental health needs of students and staff will be a huge challenge and priority for school systems.

Educators and counselors said stories are waiting to be told at every level of education as the combination of pandemic fears and racial injustice puts added pressures on students and teachers.

“Prior to COVID-19, one thing we were seeing is that loneliness is a real issue for this generation of students,” said Sharon Mitchell, the senior director of student wellness and director of counseling services at the University of Buffalo. Mitchell was part of a panel on social-emotional learning and mental health during the Education Writers Association’s 2020 National Seminar in July.

“I worry (virtual learning) is going to make an existing problem worse,” she said. “I think paying attention to how people make meaningful connections will be important.”

Mitchell suggested higher education reporters ask how local colleges and universities plan to help students connect to “campus life,” even if campuses are closed.

At the K-12 level, Rose Prejean-Harris, who is the director of social-emotional learning for Atlanta Public Schools, said journalists should explore what socialization looks like for virtual schools and how districts serving marginalized communities are connecting with students who might lack connectivity.

Even at universities and colleges that plan to start the year with in-person learning, Mitchell said journalists should explore the ways schools are promoting socialization.

“How do we help students feel connected to the campus even if physical distancing is going on?” Mitchell asked.

Addressing Students’ Stress

Elizabeth Englander, the founder and executive director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC), said during the EWA panel that many students will start the new school year with significant stressors caused by the pandemic, and journalists should look at how schools address those specific issues.

MARC works with schools on social and emotional learning and encouraging a focus on character education and empathy as a means of improving student behavior. But Englander said her organization has recently shifted to helping schools adjust “to the new reality” of COVID-19 and addressing the significant emotional challenges students face.

Englander cited studies that show a dramatic increase in screen use by children during the pandemic, which research shows can have a negative impact on social skills.

Englander said schools should also be aware that some students may have lost their home due to the coronavirus-related recession. They may even have lost a family member to the illness or experienced an increase in abuse while being quarantined in their home.

Mitchell said journalists should pay attention to how colleges and universities plan to deliver mental health services.

At the University of Buffalo, where 25 percent of students are from the New York City area, Mitchell said it will be important to care for students who were living in one of the epicenters for the pandemic.

“We do anticipate that we will be seeing students who have trauma reactions because they have lost someone or are fearful of losing someone,” Mitchell said.

Racial Disparities

Mitchell said important storylines could also explore the racial disparities in mental health for students returning to school, noting that journalists should look at how the pandemic and protests following the death of George Floyd have impacted students.

“There are health disparities that have probably made living with COVID-19 more difficult (for students of color), and the current racial climate in the country is likely contributing to added distress,” Mitchell said.

She has seen some benefits, however, in the pivot away from in-person events, as the University of Buffalo held virtual town halls following the death of Floyd.

The virtual “listening sessions” allowed students to express ways the university can create a safer space for students of color, along with giving white students a chance to reflect on their own role in creating a more welcoming environment.

“It has actually been a place virtually to have these conversations that maybe if people had to show up to some place on campus they may not have done so to talk about really important issues,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said the university has already planned several more virtual workshops, including ones focused on care for international students, those coping with COVID-related loss and how to practice self care during isolation.

“We are really looking at how we can create a greater sense of community and bring people together to have meaningful conversations … during this time,” Mitchell said.

Prejean-Harris noted that in the Atlanta school system this past spring, many educators capitalized on strong relationships they already had forged with students.

“Teachers who already had connections with their students before the pandemic happened, those relationships just kind of naturally carried over into the virtual space,” she said. “We made sure there was some kind of connection each day with kids and adults.”

In fact, the district worked hard to make sure all students had adequate laptops and WiFi , including through the purchase of “hot spots,” to make those connections possible.

The Impact on Teachers

But Englander said journalists also should consider the impact on educators.

“They are human beings too and they have had loss and trauma,” Englander said.

Her organization recommends that schools intentionally help teachers connect with their colleagues, such as through a buddy system to offer regular social connections.

Englander suggested journalists look at the limited research on the experiences of students returning to school following a national disaster or extended absences. Journalists could also look at schools in their area that reopened following a disaster to see how they handled the return.

“There are some parallels that I think are helpful,” she said.

Finally, Prejean-Harris encouraged journalists to include student voices in their reporting and to not assume children and teenagers are unaware of the unique challenges they face during the pandemic.

“We take for granted that they do not know or they don’t understand what is going on,” Prejean-Harris said. “We have to give them more credit to articulate how they feel.”