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Delta isn’t the Only Problem Schools Face this Fall

The other problems are much deeper

By David E. Kirkland

According to ABC News, the Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative has seen an increasing need for support during the pandemic with nearly 100 schools and school districts seeking support in the past year. And while most educators see the importance of emotional health, few feel they understand how to meet the emotional needs of their students. 

A recently released survey from the New York Life Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers found that only 15 percent of educators feel well trained to address grief or trauma related to the pandemic. 

According to Maria Collins, the head of the Grief-Sensitive Schools Initiative, “Grief can have a serious impact on learning, academic performance, social withdrawal, behavior issues, if not supported.”

A number of schools across the U.S. have already fully returned to in-person instruction. For many of these schools, the focus has been on responding to the Delta variant or “accelerating” learning to make up for the perceived learning losses of the past year or so. It has been less on supporting the social-emotional and mental health needs of students. And this is a mistake.

What initiatives like Grief-Sensitive Schools tell us is that, instead of accelerated learning, what schools need is a focus on accelerated care, to slow things down to move things forward with an emphasis on the emotional and mental health needs of students and the structural barriers that deny them opportunities to learn.

To some extent, this is part of Atlanta Public Schools’ return plan—to screen over 30,000 pre-K to 12th grade students on their social-emotional behavior as part of the strategy to re-integrate students into the classroom. Chicago Public Schools announced a $24 million, multi-year plan to invest in mental health and trauma support programs for students and staff. Miami-Dade County Public Schools has trained staff on social-emotional learning and mental health, and have hired 45 mental health coordinators. Beginning in January 2022, students in all Illinois schools will be able to take up to five excused mental or behavioral health days in response to increasing rates of stress, anxiety, and depression. 

These responses seem appropriate as the pandemic has placed unique strains on students. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, between March and May of 2020, hospitals across the country saw a 24 percent rise in the number of mental health emergency visits by children between ages 5 and 11, and a 31 percent increase among teens between ages 12 and 17. 

Researchers have found that preemptive, therapeutic strategies can help mitigate against such health emergencies by creating changes in the brain that reduce stress and anxiety and spark school readiness and improvement. One school-based study, for example, showed that the use of mindfulness decreased particularly depressive symptoms in “minority” children.   

There is also evidence that the impact of therapeutic school strategies corresponds directly with increases in learning and positive social interactions, and decreases in negative later life outcomes. According to researchers from The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “Students participating in SEL programs . . . showed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school.”

At the Henry Ford Academy Schools in Detroit, Michigan, educators are using SEL strategies to ensure that students receive consistent and integrated social and emotional supports and services. These therapeutic modalities include cognitive behavior therapy, mindfulness, and art and music therapy.

At Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in New York City, students progress through classroom-level systems at their own pace, acquiring increasing levels of self-management and trust, as they make gains in exhibiting responsible behaviors. Students participate in community building restorative justice practices to develop their identity and sense of self, while also learning to become good citizens and community members. In addition, they recognize each other’s accomplishments, positing daily affirmations that indicate which of the expected schoolwide learner outcomes the students exhibited that day.

School leaders in the Escondido Union School District in Escondido, California have used trauma-informed approaches to respond to the negative impact that trauma has had in their community and in all areas of student life. The district promotes care by fostering connection routines with each student (e.g., a special handshake or high-five), empowering students to have control in choices when possible, celebrating positive behaviors, and encouraging students to teach others what they know.

As students return to school, we all stand to learn much from these examples. During the past fifteen or so months, many of our children have experienced a deep sense of loss and grieving. They have been forced to surrender an important sense of themselves and the common need for safety, security, and routine that psychologists say is essential to healthy development. Not surprisingly, there has been a boom in students reporting issues related to mental and emotional breakdown. 

According to researchers from Teachers College, Columbia University, increasing racial violence and economic uncertainty have only deepened these issues. Thus, left untreated, researchers predict that the outcomes can be dire: more out-of-school suspensions, more absences, more student fatigue and difficulties with focus as a direct response to depression and anxiety, and widening disparities that increase at intersections of race, ability, gender, and class differences. 

They predict more socially-biased outcomes, with systems punishing more vulnerable students more harshly for trauma reactions out of these students’ control. 

They predict, too, that the new pace of schooling, with accelerated learning and other force-fed ‘solutions,’ will ultimately lead to burnout, adding more stress to what has already been a very stressful couple of years. 

In my own life, I have found it necessary to create space to prioritize my mental and emotional health before returning to the office this fall. In May, I started therapy after feeling my body and my mind break down due to unseen social and emotional factors instigated by the pandemic. 

Some days I felt fine, but other days I felt anchored to my bed—my limp feeling fastened against my mattress. I recall the feeling of unrelenting weariness every time I glanced at the news and saw the numbers of Covid deaths steadily rising. I remember the burden of tears bursting randomly from my eyes, nights of shivering, manic thoughts, feelings of deep loneliness, despondence, and other things I do not have language to describe. 

I was not alright. 

Therapy has helped me, and it has given me a sense of what going back to school should include—spaces for conversation and activities meant to emotionally and mentally heal. For me, it was finding a way to express new and strange emotions. It was having an ear to whisper into about my secret yearnings and hidden thoughts. For racially and socially vulnerable students, healing will also mean dealing with systems that racially injure.

My therapist gave me assignments such as writing letters to people I loved, people I did not know but admired, people who had harmed me, and those whom I had lost. Some of the letters were sent. Most were piled away. But the practice of writing for purposes of healing, which is something I think we can take into schools this fall, resuscitated in me an emotional awakening. 

When I felt most helpless, my therapist gave me another task: knitting. I ordered yarn and knitting needles online. I watched YouTube videos to learn to stitch. With my hands free and filled with purpose, I no longer felt my inner helplessness. Knitting could not cure Covid, but it could allow me a chance to create with my hands, which was important for healing my heart and my head.  

So when we return to school in the fall, my hope is that we can curate experiences like these, first, by acknowledging that something has happened, and indeed, has always been happening to our most vulnerable children. Part of this acknowledgment will be about locating wounds so that we can focus on healing them—not just the broken body of those who have suffered but also the broken souls of our systems.

Schools and districts serious about making successful returns must take a multi-tier approach to social-emotional and mental health:

  1. Universal supports. All students and staff need to engage in SEL activities such as mindfulness early and often and throughout the school year, before and after high-stressed tasks. We cannot assume that people are okay, so we must create touchpoints where all community members can benefit from therapeutic activities designed to support (and destigmatize) social-emotional and mental health.
  2. Targeted supports. Schools and districts must have plans in place to determine individual student (and teacher) social-emotional and mental health needs and create systems and hire personnel to support those needs. 
  3. Structural focus. There must be a structural focus that moves away from episodic responses to an understanding that trauma can be embedded within systems, that it has disproportionate impacts on vulnerable people. If trauma can be embedded in systems, that is, if a system can be designed to harm or exacerbate harm, then healing can be designed into systems too. How can we turn the lenses of trauma-informed care onto our schools, to see where and when and how they are sick and hurting and hurting our children? To be sure, our babies are not broken, but too often the schools we send them to are. 

These three steps are meant to offer starting points and are not intended to be a cure-all because healing ourselves and healing our schools will take time, ongoing reflection, constant revision, and persistence. So, as we return to school, it must be okay if we allow time for healing because this time spent healing ourselves and centering equity will take us farther than pressing forward while sick.

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David Kirkland

Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools; Associate Professor of English and Urban Education

David E. Kirkland is a professor of urban education at New York University, where he also serves as executive director of NYU Metro Center. He can be reached by email at: Please also follow him on Twitter: @davidekirkland.