The Return to School Offers Both New Challenges and New Opportunities
Meg Smith, MSW, LICSW, ACSW
Workforce Development Coordinator, Center for Trauma Care in Schools
After a year and a half of school that had ranged from remote to in-person learning, the return to in-person learning for school year 2021-2022 is underway across the country. Caregivers, teachers, and students are feeling a combination of excitement, relief and, naturally, worries about safety and what COVID variants may bring. Fortunately, there is reason to be optimistic when the appropriate safety measures are in place. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Center for Disease Control, and the US Department of Education all agree that students are better off in school as long as safety protocols (mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing, air filtration) are in place to support all students and staff, including the 48 million children, aged 12 and under, who are not yet eligible for vaccination.
An article from EducationWeek, Helping Students Bounce Back From a Disrupted Year: Strategies for Schools, highlights that schools “need to help students reconnect and get back into the schooling mindset.” One suggestion is to follow what newcomer programs provide to students who have experienced interrupted formal education and have been exposed to stress and trauma. The Education Week article notes that newcomer programs “focus on accelerating students rather than remediating them; providing social-emotional and mental health supports; and reestablishing school habits and norms that help students reconnect with their school community.” Further, it highlights lessons learned from students who experienced disruption from natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. Research from disaster recovery studies suggests children bounce back faster educationally when they have both academic and mental health supports and community connections in the months and years following the disaster.
The priority for more funding for school mental health is widespread. Since last spring congress has allocated $190 billion in new funding for schools. When Pedro Martinez, the Superintendant of the San Antonio, Texas school district was asked how his district would use their new funding, he is quoted in a NYT article as saying:
“When we asked parents about how we should use our federal funds, the No. 1 need they described was mental health. I was going to focus a lot more on academics, but I had to listen to that. We put mental-health specialists in every one of our schools.”
The good news is that the best evidence says that the opportunity to return children to schools safely is possible if safety protocols are in place and enforced. Equally important, families want schools to prioritize increasing mental health supports to ensure that their children are receiving the help that they need. Let’s hope that this increased emphasis and funding to support the mental health needs of students is sustained post-pandemic – whenever that time arrives. Sooner than later, we all hope.