Background on our recently released education report: How schools are supporting mental health as students return to in-person learning

As the pandemic continues to be a factor in our daily lives, schools have been at the center of public concern. While adults opine on teacher vaccination, when to return to classrooms, and masking mandates, one factor remains constant – the effects of this unusual time on student mental health are real and need attention.

Every student has experienced varying levels of trauma, ranging from loneliness and isolation, to anxiety, grief, and desperation over the loss of a loved one. Clear evidence of a rise in student depression, anxiety, and self-abuse during the pandemic has led to federal and state investments to support mental health.

In a major move that elevated California’s per-student funding from 48th in the nation to the top 10 in national rankings, Governor Newsom’s 2021-2022 budget includes a $4 billion investment in the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Initiative, which will provide screenings, counseling, and therapy  for young people up to age 25 to cope with anxiety, depression, stress and other mental health challenges. 

With the help of this and other government assistance, Bay Area educators and administrators have responded to students’ needs in meaningful ways, showing their passion for their work as they found new ways to assist students who were isolated in their homes. Across the region, schools have increased their parent involvement and student support, and strengthened the parent network.

In an effort to follow this important issue, track the results of state’s funding initiative, and highlight some of the changes it has enabled, SVLG recently released a new report investigating the work of local school districts in the realm of mental health.

We identified seven important practices that are being implemented in Bay Area schools:

    1.   Provide consistent space to talk about mental health, with special focus on how people have built resilience and coped during the COVID-19 pandemic.
    2.   Develop a mentor network that connects students to adults and streamlines communication from school to the family.
    3.   Provide quality professional development for teachers and staff around both students’ and their own mental health.
    4.   Integrate social and emotional learning (SEL) in all aspects of the school day, including both the academic curriculum and extra-curricular activities.
    5.   A comprehensive mental health and wellbeing screening to support all children, providing early detection of a students’ mental health needs and strengths.
    6.   A three-tiered approach like the existing multi-tiered support system for academics.
    7.   Include multiple stakeholders in designing and evaluating mental health programs on school campuses. 

Across the regions, schools and school districts engaged in culturally responsive communication, making information available to families across language barriers. Many now host food pantries because they understand that basic needs or lack thereof impact student mental health and overall wellbeing. Here are some examples of school district successes from the report:

  •     San Jose Unified School District, the largest in the area adopted an all-hands-on-deck approach, engaging their staff from bus drivers, to lunchtime attendants to the superintendent herself, to reach out to families. When kids didn’t show up in their Zoom classes, the community worked together to find out why and provide support for students and families.
  •     Sunrise Middle School offered a meditation and mindfulness class that had been in place before COVID, and when classes went online, this class was among the most well-attended. Sunrise used the funding to build out that program, and now has a teacher dedicated to meditation and mindfulness thanks to the state mental health funding the school received.
  •     At East Side Union High School District in San Jose administrators implemented talk therapy, art therapy, and movement classes, and installed a wellness center on campus. Having these services close by, where students didn’t have to travel to get to them, proved a huge help. The district also proactively chose to reallocate the money used for on-campus police officers directly into their student mental health efforts, expanding their support for students. 
  •     Rocketship Public Schools now holds regular workshops on how to communicate with kids, coping with loss and grief, and how to deal with stress at home. Despite not having students on campus, the administration has been and remains much aware of the needs of their students’ families. During COVID the school increased its already strong support around mindfulness and mental health, creating positions that incorporated social emotional learning components into their daily curricula.
  •     The Mountain View-Whisman School District encouraged parents to get more involved, including inviting them to attend and participate in board meetings to advocate for students across cultures and language barriers. Parents found other ways to support students, including a Whatsapp group for parents to exchange needed items like laptops or chargers.
  •     Oak Grove School District in South San Jose used faculty meetings to communicate across subject areas to ensure that no students with difficulties went unnoticed. They raised the number of counseling interns, with attention to hiring interns who echoed the ethnic makeup of the student body.

Educators have truly shone during this difficult period, and these are only a few examples of their work. By working together, we can usher our youth past this difficult time and into a healthy and successful future.

Read the full report here.