Schools Prepare to Tackle Massive Mental Health Needs

Education

The Learning Curve: Schools Prepare to Tackle Massive Mental Health Needs

Schools face a mental health challenge of dramatic proportions – and it’s still unclear whether teachers and principals will have the tools to address it.

san diego school covid
Third grade students at Encanto Elementary watch a video during class. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Leticia Enriquez, a social worker at Chula Vista Elementary School District, recently helped lead an online workshop about how to help children grieve and heal. She started with a personal story. Enriquez told the audience about informing her own two children that their grandfather had died from COVID-19 on Christmas Day.

“We can’t pretend everything is OK. Because silence actually says a lot to our kids,” said Enriquez. “It may say that we’re unaware, that we’re unconcerned or that we’re unable or unwilling to be of assistance and these are not messages that we ever want to communicate to our children – especially not during a crisis.”

Areas like Chula Vista, which are predominantly home to people of color, got hit the hardest by the pandemic. Students there are far more likely to have seen a family member die than their peers in other more affluent parts of the county. But students who live in areas where COVID-19 deaths were less frequent have also suffered from isolation and deprivation that can be devastating to a developing young person, as one former school board member and practicing psychologist wrote in a recent op-ed.

What I’m getting at is this: Schools face a mental health challenge of dramatic proportions – and it’s still unclear whether teachers and principals will have the tools to address it.

The good news is that schools are getting a glut of cash. San Diego County schools will ultimately receive at least $2 billion in pandemic aid, on top of the normal funds they receive each year. But how will they spend it when it comes to addressing mental health needs?

Of all the suggestions floating around, I’ve heard one the most. Officials, almost across the board, say they want to spend money for professional development trainings that will teach teachers how to address social-emotional needs in the classroom.

Heather Nemour works at the San Diego County Office of Education and helps districts all across the county address mental health needs. She said there’s been a big increase in districts asking for trainings.

“There is a big focus on really embedding social emotional learning in the curriculum to help students identify emotions and normalize them and learn coping strategies like self-management and self-regulation,” said Nemour.

Training teachers to better handle student needs in the classroom is important. But with all that money, it also seems entirely possible that schools could hire an influx of counselors that has been badly needed for years.

A study after Hurricane Katrina (which is apt, insomuch as it was both a natural and a manmade disaster) found that society could have helped roughly 95 percent of all affected citizens recover from their mental health traumas for the cost of $1,133 per person within 30 months of the disaster.

That’s encouraging, because the $2 billion coming into school districts across the county translates into roughly $5,000 per student for the roughly 500,000 students who attend school here.

The study found that “screening, assessment, treatment and care coordination” would make up the basis of enhanced mental health services needed to help a population recover.

Exactly how much screening and treatment will find their way into the classroom remains to be seen.

Richard Barrera, board president of San Diego Unified, said he also thinks it will be important to train teachers and improve the curriculum. But Barrera did say he hopes that the district increases its number of counselors to an extent that all children would be able to see a counselor twice a month.

Barrera also said, via text message, he hopes the district will conduct a “top-to-bottom analysis of the ways in which school contributes positively to student mental health, and the way in which school damages student mental health – e.g., too much homework, too much emphasis on applying to elite colleges, too much emphasis on standardized testing.”

One interesting outlier: San Marcos Unified, unlike any other district in the county, has so far spent more of its federal CARES Act money on crisis counseling than distance learning, my colleague Ashly McGlone found.

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