One of the areas that we are all concerned about as we work to determine the best path forward for educating students during the pandemic is mental health. As families advocate to myself and the board of education mental health is often cited as a reason for the action desired to be taken. Thus, I reached out to an elementary school counselor, a high school counselor, and our mental health team leader for their perspective on this important issue.
In Worthington Schools, we employ 26 licensed school counselors and 7 licensed mental health specialists to support our students. Additionally, we partner with North Community Counseling for support and we provide a Safe and Drug Free Coordinator to assist families. We believe that every staff member in Worthington Schools must act as a trusted adult so that each student in our schools has a trusted adult or many trusted adults who they know cares about them and believes in them. We’re committed to serving our students and families as best we can in this area. Even with that attention to this area as you’ll read, it’s complicated. Here’s what our experts in this area shared:
“Thank you for following up on this topic. We appreciate the opportunity to share our work and provide additional information in this extraordinary school year. This is not a clear and simple answer – unfortunately, questions about mental health rarely are, but we can provide you with some information.
The mental health needs of students are always significant. We would say, as a whole, the mental health concerns were already on the rise prior to the pandemic, and, as expected, they are bigger now because of the state of our world. However, we believe it is important to recognize that it is not the school setting that is causing the increased mental health concerns. Nothing is normal right now. Any attempt to pretend that something is normal or that we should expect students to be functioning as if life is normal is unrealistic and unfair. So no matter the school setting – remote, hybrid or all-in, our students would still be facing increased mental health concerns.
We suspect that part of the reason parents are communicating that there is an increased concern related to mental health issues is that students are at home and with their families more and so it is more visible to people who might not have witnessed it previously. Additionally, parents are feeling the increased stress and negative mental health impacts within their own lives and so they are also struggling more and can identify with those concerns within their sons/ daughters.
As the year continues to unfold, we have seen many changes with the mental health of our elementary students. There has been a variation of mental health concerns at the elementary level and each building has experienced something different. I think most elementary schools anticipated an increase in mental health issues at the beginning of the year, but we were surprised how well kids adjusted to the current situation. Students were excited to be back at school in whatever capacity that looked like. Some of our buildings saw increased anxiety around navigating all of the new protocols and safety implementations. On the other side, we have seen many students thrive during the remote and hybrid learning modes. A consistent challenge this year has been going between learning modes. It has been hard on students to switch routines, especially our students that have a lot of anxiety. We have noticed that what we anticipated at the beginning of the year, in terms of students’ mental health, is now showing up in the second half of the year. It has been difficult for students to get into a routine and some of our buildings have seen an increase in mental health issues.
At the middle school level, we have seen an overall increase in the intensity of mental health concerns. Our middle school students rely on social connections with peers and trusted adults to navigate this tricky time in life. While the hybrid learning model allows staff to have eyes on students, build relationships in person, and provide as much support, both academic and social-emotional, as possible, we are still socially distancing, students are sitting alone at lunch, and there is less interaction and cooperative activities in classrooms in order to maintain safety guidelines. At the same time, students this age are often home alone, on technology devices for long periods of time, and replacing in-person social interactions with online ones, which can influence their behavior choices and exacerbate existing mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression. This social isolation is leading to an increase in negative feelings for our students. We utilize our district mental health professionals, as well as community, supports like Nationwide Children’s Hospital, weekly on average at each middle school, for risk assessments related to suicidal ideation and safety concerns. Our data from Signs of Suicide supports this increase in the intensity of screening concerns this school year. We work with amazing teachers and administrators, and we strive to support them and our students’ families, responding quickly and collaboratively.
At the high school, the reality of what we are witnessing is that students who were already anxious or depressed are feeling that to a greater degree during the pandemic and social unrest. For some, their mental health concerns are exacerbated by feelings of isolation, while for others it is their fears of COVID and societal issues that are having the biggest negative impact. As a result, being all-in could help some of the students (those struggling due to isolation) while making it much harder for other students (those struggling with COVID fears).
For students feeling isolated, they may feel disconnected from peers, teachers and learning which can lead to a “why even try” mindset. We also know that there are students who are living in homes with dysfunctional family dynamics such as COVID divorces. The conflict they are witnessing at home creates turmoil for the students and they are not given the daily escape of school as a safe reprieve from their home circumstances.
For students struggling with COVID fears, we know some of our students already struggle a great deal if there are any instances where they don’t feel confident that they have 6 feet social distancing. When everything they hear is about the importance of wearing masks and social distancing, these interventions help give them comfort to make it through the day. We also have seen that there are students who have thrived during hybrid. Some love the smaller class sizes and others seem to benefit from more “off” days where they can recharge to help balance out their time when they are physically in school.
Looking at it from the perspective of the “MTSS Ramp Analogy” would indicate that while there is no perfect answer, the best we can hope to do is to try to meet the needs overall for most of the students. (MTSS Ramp Analogy – a custodian is shoveling a ramp on a snowy day and is asked why they are not shoveling the stairs. The reason is because everyone can use the ramp, but not everyone can use the stairs.) For the pandemic – hybrid feels similar to shoveling the ramp – we are trying to help those who have fears associated with social distancing while also meeting the needs of those who need the in-person interactions to reduce isolation.
In general, we believe it is important to recognize that there is a level of uneasiness and concern among all of us who care about kids – that something could be negatively impacting a student’s mental health and that it would be missed. We suspect that some parents are feeling this way as they look at their own child’s concerns. We would anticipate that this is a concern among the BOE and the WEC administrators. And we know, without a moment’s hesitation, that it is a very real fear for all school counselors and mental health specialists. Additionally, the remote and hybrid settings can make it harder to pick up on concerns, especially if parents aren’t noticing them at home to alert us to the issues because we have limited time and interactions at school. But even if we were all-in, there is still no guarantee that we would be able to notice these concerns. In part because there are so many kids with known issues that we are trying to intervene with and support as well as the fact that masks impact the ability to read the full range of emotions on students.
There is no doubt that mental health concerns are real and on the rise, but that was already happening pre-pandemic and is simply being magnified by the various challenges being experienced by students and families in our world today. Prevention efforts are decreased while efforts focused on responsive services to react to student needs becomes the norm when kids are in crisis. It’s really difficult to say if all in or hybrid are better or worse for students because the bottom line is that life right now is just really hard.”
- Trent Bowers, Superintendent