As new school year begins, a focus on social and emotional health

August 13, 2021

A student stands quietly on the grass and does a yoga pose during PE at Dover Elementary in San Pablo on July 14, 2021. West Contra Costa Unified is among several districts prioritizing social and emotional learning and student wellness check-ins during the first few weeks of school.

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Distance learning and the coronavirus have taken an undeniable toll on students who have suffered from isolation, learning loss and trauma during the past year and a half.

Some parents say their children have developed different personalities during the pandemic and have become disengaged, according to West Contra Costa Unified Superintendent Kenneth “Chris” Hurst. Other students have “almost given up,” he said.

Prompted by similar concerns, West Contra Costa Unified and many districts across California are planning a “restorative restart” for the first few weeks of school. In general, the idea is to focus on students’ social and emotional health and build back connections with teachers as an important part of returning to the classroom.

The plans include school staff making contact with parents to build relationships with families, screening students to gauge their needs and address learning loss, teaching what’s termed as a social-emotional learning curriculum, and rebuilding systems to focus on issues of equity.

Social-emotional learning is education based on helping students develop emotional skills like self-awareness and navigating healthy relationships vital to success in school and life. Some examples include meditation and mindfulness exercises and communication and collaboration skills.

“I don’t believe it’s appropriate for us to expect that kids can just come back into the learning environment after a year and a half or just expect them to engage in the same way they did pre-Covid — that’s just unrealistic,” Hurst said. “We have to build in time throughout the school day and school year a way to legitimately check in on our kids. It’s about our kids and meeting their social and emotional needs.”

West Contra Costa Unified serves around 30,000 students in Richmond and surrounding communities. Like most areas, Hurst said, West Contra Costa students are dealing with various levels of trauma from the last school year, whether they experienced a death in the family or other hardships.

The concept for a “restorative restart” was first mentioned in the report “Reimagine and Rebuild: Restarting school with equity at the center.” The report was co-published in April by Policy Analysis for California Education, Education Trust-West, Californians for Justice, the California PTA, the California Teachers Association, Association for California School Administrators and numerous social justice and youth advocacy groups.

The report suggests dozens of ideas for the first six weeks of school, including home visits for teachers to meet families. As for on-campus activities, the report suggests outdoor games and art projects, small group discussions and other events to help students and teachers get to know each other. Regular mental health screenings and referrals to counselors for students who need extra support are encouraged, as well as restorative practices such as group discussions about student behavior as an alternative to traditional discipline.

Another key element of the restorative restart concept is addressing the disproportionate impact of distance learning on low-income students and students of color, who had already been lagging behind due to long-standing systemic inequities. The report urges schools to lend extra help to those students — both academically and to meet their social and emotional needs.

The report, which was based on input from teachers, administrators, students, parents and researchers, said school communities should build toward an education system “that places equity at the center” so that all students have the support and opportunities they need to achieve their potential.

“This was a huge year for conversations around racial justice,” said Hannah Esqueda Freeman, spokeswoman for Californians for Justice. “Young people want to return to classrooms and have the environment ready to have conversations around racial equity — what Black and brown students need to feel supported. Folks don’t want to come back to school and have that be shuffled and ignored.”

Hurst and other administrators met with principals last week to help them develop their restorative restart plans before school starts. West Contra Costa Unified is leaving it up to principals to decide which programs and practices are best for their schools.

LaResha Martin, the district’s new chief academic officer, said at a school board meeting that the district is asking principals to offer social-emotional learning curriculum for students for at least 30 minutes a week and to hold restorative group discussions or other community-building exercises every day in the classroom.

Esqueda Freeman said teaching social-emotional lessons is especially important because of the trauma many students experienced over the past year, whether they lost family members to Covid or experienced anxiety and isolation.

“There’s students who are in high school for the second year and have never set foot on campus,” Esqueda Freeman said. “We need to look at what they need in order to feel like they’re stepping into a community instead of running back to a classroom where there’s all these hard deadlines and expectations for them.”

Esqueda Freeman said several districts, including Oakland Unified and Long Beach Unified are using modified versions of the restorative restart.

West Contra Costa Unified schools will kick off the year with “check-ins,” which include both in-person home visits and email or phone contacts with parents to build partnerships between parents and the schools. Family nights and school tours for small groups of parents are on the agenda.

The district also plans to have each school do screenings and assessments to gauge the learning loss that each student may have experienced, and Hurst said it’s up to each school site how they plan to do that. The aim, he said, is to have an individualized education plan for every student to address their academic needs.

Though having individualized education plans for every student is the district’s “direction,” he stressed that the district’s restorative restart will be a collaborative effort between administrators, principals and teachers. He added that each school site will have autonomy and that he is open to suggestions for the plan.

“My hope is that every single student feels like they have caring adults that they can go to whenever they’re having an issue or a need,” Hurst said. “It’s my hope also that they feel a strong sense of support across the schools and across the system.”

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