As the familiar , steady routine of the traditional school year was thrown into turmoil during the pandemic , one of the many concerns of parents and educators was the emotional health of students facing the isolating and numbing change in their central routine .
But while experts are very concerned about the short- and longterm effects of the pandemic , they say that it also focused needed attention on an already growing concern and began more dialogue about fundamentally changing how schools tackle the issue .
“ Yes , we are worried . We know this is a big concern ,” said Dr . Dana Milakovic , a mental health specialist and leading expert on trauma for the Pennsylvania Department of Education ( PDE ). “ While not every youth is going to be traumatized by the pandemic or the racial strife the country faced , it will significantly affect many of them , particularly those who already are high-risk .”
“ Many staff and students have experienced personal loss and struggle due to the pandemic , says Tracey Hirner , supervisor of social emotional health services for the Bethlehem Area School District ( BASD ). “ The pandemic intensified the struggles of our most at-risk populations . There is also continued anxiety and concern from many as they feel the effects of the increased community spread of COVID this fall .”
The federal government is providing emergency relief funding for school districts to handle the problem but school leaders in the field and PDE have been working on structures that could support student mental health long term ( see sidebar ), fearing that just quick-fixes and additional staffing won ’ t solve the fundamental issues . They also worry about the burden on schools , once the three years of diminishing federal funding dries up .
“ There is a palpable shift in the conversation about student mental health and well-being , and more of a focus on the need for providing them with strong social and emotional skills ,” said Steve Sharp , past president of the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association and now a PSCA board member , who has worked with the state on guidance for districts and intermediate units to tackle the issue .
Experts say school staff should get more training about spotting emotional issues , counseling staff should be increased or otherwise supported , and networks to outside services should be built or strengthened .
While Sharp sees the need for more schoolwide training and more counselors ( the ratio in PA of counselors to students is about
360:1 , but the American School Counselors Association recommends a ratio of 250:1 ), like Milakovic , he believes this is an opportunity also to change thinking about how schools bolster student mental health .
Jim Paterson is an education writer living in Lewes , DE .