Mental health, equity should be schools’ focus as students return, report says

April 29, 2021

The first six weeks back on campus should be devoted to student and teacher well-being, according to a new report.

To help students readjust to life after the pandemic, schools should use their Covid-relief funding windfall to imbue mental health, equity and relationships into every aspect of the school day, according to a sweeping new report released Thursday.

“This is the biggest infusion of money into schools that many of us will see in our lifetimes. We’re hoping educators take advantage of this moment to not go back to the way we were,” said Christopher J. Nellum, interim executive director of the Education Trust-West, an Oakland nonprofit that advocates for equity in schools and one of more than a dozen groups that contributed to the report. “We should take a moment to explore what we can do that’s exciting and innovative.”

The report, “Reimagine and Rebuild: Restarting school with equity at the center,” was co-published by Policy Analysis for California Education, Education Trust-West, Californians for Justice and an array of other groups, including the California PTA, the California Teachers Association, Association for California School Administrators and numerous social justice and youth advocacy groups.

California schools will receive more than $35.7 billion in state and federal pandemic funding over the next few months, which they can use to can pay for services like mental health counseling and tutoring for students. Although most of the funding is not permanent, schools can invest the money in some one-time ventures that could have lasting impacts, such as partnerships with mental health and community groups, said Heather Hough, executive director of PACE.

The report was based on interviews with teachers, administrators and researchers, as well as students of all backgrounds.

“In education, we talk a lot about students, but rarely do we talk with them. The brief was developed by working with Black, brown, Asian Pacific Islander and low-income students to lay out their blueprint for an education system that is built to support every student to thrive,” said Taryn Ishida, executive director of Californians for Justice, which advocates for young people of color.

The report focuses on summer and the first six weeks of school but also calls for longer-term improvements in K-12 education.

“We acknowledge that people are exhausted. We can’t do everything we need to do right away,” Hough said. “But we also know that schools have not met the needs of a large group of students for a long time, and we need to start looking at long-term changes.”

Noting that the pandemic disproportionately affected low-income students and students of color, the report urges schools to give extra help to those students — both academically and to meet their social and emotional needs.

The report also says that schools should focus on locating and re-engaging the estimated 130,000 students statewide who stopped attending school when classes shifted online and the thousands more who were chronically absent or otherwise disengaged.

The report suggests dozens of ideas, including:

Student well-being should be an urgent priority for every school reopening for in-person learning, Hough said.

“What we don’t want to see is kids coming back to school and being hammered with instructional content,” Hough said. “Kids cannot learn unless they have opportunities to connect with one another and feel seen and acknowledged as a whole person.”

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