Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

The best way schools can help students catch up academically after a year of distance learning is to ensure they feel relaxed, safe and connected to their friends and teachers as they return to the classroom.

A year after the pandemic forced school districts to close campuses, students across California are beginning to return to the classroom at least a few days a week. But their experiences during the pandemic and their needs upon returning to school — academically, as well as emotionally — have varied greatly.

Some students adjusted well to distance learning and thrived academically, but many others struggled with online classes and endured hardships at home, such as Covid-related sickness or deaths of family members, parents’ unemployment, or time-consuming responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings or going to work to help support their families.

“There is a direct link between mental health and academic performance,” said Jeannine Topalian, president of the California Association of School Psychologists and a psychologist in Los Angeles Unified School District. “When a child is worried about a parent being unemployed, or whether the family will become homeless, how can they learn to add? Or read? Students will not be able to move forward until their mental health needs are met.”

Nearly all students over the past year felt some degree of isolation and loneliness during the pandemic, but some experienced far more serious mental health challenges, depending on their circumstances.

More than half of California students who responded to a survey by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said they experienced serious stress, anxiety or depression at least some time during the past year. An increasing number said they had suicidal thoughts. Some students simply vanished from schools’ radars by not logging into online class or responding to emails, texts or phone calls.

But the overall picture of students’ sense of well-being is nuanced. Education Analytics, a national data research nonprofit, analyzed surveys of 30,000 California students in grades 4 to 12 and found differences in the way students of different ages and subgroups felt about themselves and their relationships with others during the pandemic.

Older students, for example, tended to rate their personal well-being as poor, but had higher opinions of their relationships with peers, possibly because they were able to stay connected through social media, said Libby Pier, director of impact at the firm. English learners in upper grades reported higher personal well-being, but across all grades, expressed lower opinions about their relationships with others.

The survey was given in the fall and again in the winter, and the results will be released later this month by Policy Analysis for California Education. Researchers then matched the survey results with students’ individual academic records to determine a connection between academic performance and how well a student is feeling emotionally. Schools will be able to use the information to help individual students who need support.

“There are a lot of variables, but in general we found that if students feel more positively, they do better academically,” Pier said. “And if they like school more, they perform better.”

Well-thought-out, concise surveys about students’ well-being should be a part of all schools’ reopening plans, according to a report by PACE released in February. Schools should also adopt a comprehensive plan to address students’ social-emotional needs and provide help for students with more serious mental health issues, according to the report, which includes several examples of surveys that schools can use.

Learning loss, defined as a slowing or reversal of academic progress, is expected to be severe as campuses reopen, especially for younger students and low-income students, according to recent PACE research. Gaps in achievement among different student groups are also likely to widen because of the disparate impact of the pandemic on different subgroups, according to the report.

That’s why it’s so important for schools to prioritize students’ mental health before delving into academics, said Amy Cranston, executive director for the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for California. Students who are lagging behind will not be able to progress academically until they feel good about themselves and connected to school, she said.

“If it was up to me, I’d focus on nothing but SEL and mental health until the end of the school year,” she said. “It’s an equity issue.”

Students need time to reconnect with friends, practice their social skills, get to know their teachers and adjust to the routines and rules of campus life again. That means daily check-ins for students to talk about their emotional state and plenty of activities such as yoga or mindfulness. It also includes lessons that emphasize communication skills, self-awareness, relationship-building and ways to express emotions.

Teachers should check in with students every day, either one-on-one or in small groups, about how they’re feeling, and know when to refer a student to an on-campus counselor, social worker or psychologist if needed, Cranston said.

Schools should hire more counselors, train teachers and administrators on social-emotional learning techniques and, if needed, open on-campus wellness centers or partner with local nonprofits to provide mental health services for students and their families, she said.

Cranston advised schools and parents to not overly focus on learning loss during the first few weeks of reopening. Some students actually excelled academically during the pandemic, and children in general are resilient; many will quickly pick up what they’ve missed once they’re feeling good emotionally, she said.

The California Department of Education is encouraging districts to use their state funds from AB 86, a $6.6 billion California school funding initiative that passed in March, to train teachers and staff in social-emotional learning practices, expand mental health services, and broaden after-school and summer programs to focus on activities that help students feel connected to school, such as field trips and hands-on learning activities.

“I am unapologetic about this. Students need to feel seen, recognized and supported right now. In essence, they need to feel love,” said Michael Funk, director of expanded learning for the California Department of Education.

Summer programs will be especially important, particularly for students from low-income families who can’t afford camps for their children, he said. Some districts have contracted with YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, local departments of parks and recreation and other agencies to provide extensive summer programs for students to socialize, visit new places and do activities that connect to academics, such as reading or math.

Ideally, investments in students’ mental health and emotional well-being will become a permanent part of districts’ planning and budgets, Funk said.

“This is not the time to go back to business as usual,” he said. “We have an opportunity, coming out of the pandemic, to do something transformative. This should not be a one-off.”

In Tehama County, a rural area north of Sacramento, districts have expanded their social-emotional learning and mental health services for several years, due to increased problems with student attendance, behavior and academic performance. Those practices have proven to be effective — the suspension rate at Red Bluff High School has dropped by half since 2016-17 — but during the pandemic, they’ve been invaluable, said Jim Southwick, assistant superintendent at the Tehama County Department of Education.

Most students in Tehama County have been attending school full time or in a hybrid model since September, and daily check-ins, classroom conversations about emotions and other activities have helped students cope with a tumultuous year, he said.

“Even students who had attendance issues were excited to be back in school,” Southwick said. “We think it’s because of the relationships they built on campus. And SEL (social-emotional learning) is all about relationships.”

In Orange County, the Department of Education is providing free or low-cost training for teachers, administrators and other school staff in social-emotional learning techniques in order to ease students back onto campus.

The practice goes beyond activities and check-ins; it’s a comprehensive approach to creating a positive mood on campus, said Colleen Ferreira, the county’s coordinator of social-emotional learning. It ranges from direct instruction on communication skills and identifying emotions, to including student input on how and which academic subjects are taught.

“You can have academics and SEL at the same time,” Ferreira said. “They can be integrated. It should be a whole system approach.”

Any classroom approach should be flexible enough to allow for a variety of student experiences, Topalian said. Each student will have had unique experiences in the year away from in-person class, and schools should not try a one-size-fits-all approach, she said.

“Every student’s experience is going to be different,” she said. “Some students will have experienced death, wildfires, social injustice, domestic violence. And others will have had very enriching experiences at home and be doing well. We have to be careful not to transmit our own anxieties on those students.”

So far, she’s heard of few surprises or hiccups regarding students’ return to campus.

“Mostly, I hear students are really excited to be back in school. And their teachers are, too,” she said. “Right now, everyone’s really happy. So that’s good.”

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  1. Malene Kai Bell 5 months ago5 months ago

    @Ken Totally agree. I really agree with many of the points made in this article and we have to begin to look holistically at mental health and well-being. That means teachers and admins have to be included. It’s not a choice between either/or, it’s a both/and.

  2. Ted 5 months ago5 months ago

    This is so disappointingly divorced from reality. It would make a world of sense if this was written in April 2019, now it's complete nonsense. More to the point: what learning was "lost"? Who are these children "behind"? Are there children on Mars who are rocking their standardized test scores?! Y'all need to stop gaslighting students with ridiculous expectations and treat them like humans. And schools are even less likely to devote resources to treating children with … Read More

    This is so disappointingly divorced from reality. It would make a world of sense if this was written in April 2019, now it’s complete nonsense.

    More to the point: what learning was “lost”? Who are these children “behind”? Are there children on Mars who are rocking their standardized test scores?!

    Y’all need to stop gaslighting students with ridiculous expectations and treat them like humans. And schools are even less likely to devote resources to treating children with dignity than they are on psychologists and social workers (who were already stretched beyond reason before COVID).

  3. Brenda Lebsack 5 months ago5 months ago

    As a public school teacher and former school board member, I believe emotional health of children is very important. I also believe full disclosure to parents of who has access to their children is very important. Cranston said schools should partner with local nonprofits to provide mental health services for students. In Orange County that is happening now, however most parents do not know what agencies are partnering with the districts, what … Read More

    As a public school teacher and former school board member, I believe emotional health of children is very important. I also believe full disclosure to parents of who has access to their children is very important. Cranston said schools should partner with local nonprofits to provide mental health services for students. In Orange County that is happening now, however most parents do not know what agencies are partnering with the districts, what type of access these outside advisors have with their children, and what ideologies they hold as it relates to “mental health”.

    Let me provide one example. My district provides 800 number hotlines for all students in the district called “WE CARE”. One of the agencies is called the Trevor Project Lifeline. My district is a Title 1 District with a high immigrant population. Parents do not know the Trevor Project adheres to and affirms expansive and fluid gender and sexual ideologies.
    https://www.brenda4kids.com/index.php/our-media/expansive-unlimited-sexual-orientations-trevor-project
    These ideologies contrast with the majority of cultures represented in my community, however these are the advisors counseling their children. Parents deserve to know who these partnering nonprofit agencies are, what type of access they have to their children, and any controversial ideologies that may contrast with their familial and cultural values. This is one of many examples and it needs to be corrected for the sake of trust and respect.

    Replies

    • Ted 5 months ago5 months ago

      I strongly suggest considering how many youth you’d like to bury, because that is what will result in your suggestion. LGBT young people need support regardless of whether their families are supportive or not.

  4. Justine Fischer 5 months ago5 months ago

    It took a pandemic for people to realize what research has been telling us for decades. Social-emotional learning, mental health support and positive relationships help students to be successful.

  5. Ken 5 months ago5 months ago

    I am pleased that we are considering the mental health of the students, however many staff faced the same hardships, and we have been largely ignored. A environment of toxic positivity, that completely ignores or discredits the concerns some staff may have, while adding an untold number of new tasks to our daily routines. We've been in-person since September, opening up during a brief dip in cases, and remained open through the entire … Read More

    I am pleased that we are considering the mental health of the students, however many staff faced the same hardships, and we have been largely ignored. A environment of toxic positivity, that completely ignores or discredits the concerns some staff may have, while adding an untold number of new tasks to our daily routines. We’ve been in-person since September, opening up during a brief dip in cases, and remained open through the entire second wave. Students and staff have lost family members. We should be concerned about everyone involved here.

  6. Jay 5 months ago5 months ago

    The social and emotional components of learning are extremely important; however, the best way to support each student is by reducing the class size as they return to the classroom. This will require the state overriding collective bargaining and mandating a ratio of 25:1 or better for each class, not an average among classes.

  7. el 5 months ago5 months ago

    This is potentially a significant positive change for our strategy for school in general - recognizing that no one can learn complex skills in a situation where they are stressed about their personal survival or the safety of their families or even physically uncomfortable, as in a room that is too hot or too cold. The last thing we need to do is add in the stress of "hey, you're behind in this high stakes skill … Read More

    This is potentially a significant positive change for our strategy for school in general – recognizing that no one can learn complex skills in a situation where they are stressed about their personal survival or the safety of their families or even physically uncomfortable, as in a room that is too hot or too cold.

    The last thing we need to do is add in the stress of “hey, you’re behind in this high stakes skill and you’d better master it by Tuesday.”

    For all the talk about lockdowns causing suicides (forgetting that fear of a deadly disease is completely reasonable), I’ve seen a lot of people eliding the way that we know that normal school can be extremely stressful and difficult for mental health. Now is our opportunity to do things differently and to create better supports and options for students who are struggling. It’s also a chance to look at the practices we have and decide which ones stress students in ways that promote healthy growth and which ones only tear them down.

    We undervalue interpersonal and life coping skills – they’re hard to measure on a standardized test – but if you want career readiness, I can think of few skills that are more generically valuable. Yet, it’s hard to reach out for tutoring in them.

    Humans are good at learning when they feel safe and their needs are met. Learning time doesn’t expire with age but expecting learning to be unaffected by federal emergencies (which many of our current students have been experiencing every year for the past 5 years) or personal emergencies or personal unrelenting trauma is unrealistic.

    Replies

    • Ted 5 months ago5 months ago

      This would require an overhaul of the entire educational system – one that I agree with.

      And it will not happen. We didn’t take the worst plague in a century seriously, we don’t take children seriously, and we certainly don’t take traumatized children seriously.