‘Just want to get back to normal’: Lingering effect of pandemic student mental health remains a top issue for schools

As the school year comes to a close, the lingering impact of the pandemic on the mental health of local students, teachers and parents remains heavy on the minds of administrators and health counselors.

The past school year was tough on everyone involved in the education process — especially for students.

COVID-19 outbreaks caused students and teachers to miss more school when many children who were taught remotely the previous year were already behind in the learning process. Some kids displayed new behavioral problems they hadn’t before. There were new politics around regulating schools and what teachers can or can’t teach.

All of that - plus dealing with an ongoing pandemic, which sometimes came with the death of family and friends, job loss or housing loss - was exhausting for everyone.

A Center for Disease Control survey in 2021 showed more than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.

“Everybody in the education world just wants to get back to ‘normal’,” said Shannon Cox, the Montgomery County Education Services Center superintendent. MCESC provides mental health services to some Montgomery County schools and brings the county’s superintendents together for monthly meetings.

Cox said it’s important for districts to support their staff who in turn can support students. Otherwise, it will be difficult for students to catch up.

How trauma affects kids

Sue Fralick, director of Community Behavioral Health Services for Dayton Children’s Hospital, said more children are showing severe behavioral problems this school year.

Fralick oversees Dayton Children’s mental health staff that works in multiple school districts, including Dayton Public Schools, Mad River Local, Trotwood-Madison and Beavercreek schools.

She said now that COVID-19 cases have fallen significantly compared to peaks this past winter, people think other effects of the pandemic have also lessened. That’s not the case.

“If somebody’s experienced trauma, their social and emotional ages get stunted at the age that that trauma occurs,” Fralick said. “And it takes work to help the kids grow out of that age, if somebody pays attention to it, and that’s where counseling can help.”

Kids in online school the last two years missed a transitional growth stage from middle to high school, Fralick said, in that they had not been able to grow socially and emotionally due to lack of contact with other kids and a lack of routine and expectations from in-person school.

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For example, embarrassment might show up as anger, as the kid hasn’t learned to appropriately express that emotion due to lack of exposure to embarrassing situations around their peers.

Academics are also a challenge for many children, Fralick said, because the part of the brain that engages in learning online is not the same part that engages in learning in-person.

For those kids who already had anxiety or depression, going back to school or the isolation from others may have worsened those symptoms, she said.

Fralick said teachers, administrators and parents can’t be forgotten in this problem. They’ve all gone through the same COVID-19 pandemic the children went through, plus they are dealing with children who are not as emotionally regulated as previous years.

“Being able to give teachers mental wellness support, I think is a really good way that the schools can help,” she said.

Fralick said parents can reach out to teachers to see what they need. To help students open up, giving them fun activities as a family and space to talk, she said.

But she said that parents have also been through the same trauma and not everyone is available.

“We have to have empathy for everybody through all of this and not judge people,” she said.

What schools are doing for students

Schools have federal money from bills passed in 2020 and 2021 as well as state money available to spend on student mental health.

About 80% of Ohio schools that were eligible for wellness and mental health services funding took advantage last school year, and they spent a combined $289 million on that programming, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Ohio dedicated $675 million toward the Student Wellness and Success program for 2019-21 because that need was recognized before the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Many school districts said they would like to hire more therapists for their district, but can’t find qualified candidates.

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Cox noted a normally simple thing that was particularly hard this year was keeping school feeling predictable and routine.

“It’s just trying to keep the days as similar as possible,” Cox said. “That sounds boring in some cases, but for the most part for our kids, it’s safety. We know exactly when we walk into this building what to expect.”

To help students deal with the past two years, Ohio schools are required to have social-emotional learning in classrooms. In addition, some schools have therapy staff available for students to talk to.

Northmont schools contract with South Community, a nonprofit behavioral health group that works with both adults and children, as well as the Montgomery County ESC. Leslie Hobbs, student services director for the district, said at the elementary level, school counselors only focus on helping kids with their emotions. The district also has a social worker.

In Miamisburg, superintendent Laura Blessing said in addition to resources like counselors and social workers, the district made it a point to have fun school days. An elementary school teacher will play music on the piano when kids are first coming into school. The Parent-Teacher Organizations helped building student councils organize popcorn and donuts for the teachers this past week, which was Teacher Appreciation Week.

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“I just think everyone is recognizing the greater need that we’re seeing now as our students are trying to recover from the gaps that occurred socially and academically during COVID,” Blessing said.

Huber Heights schools have five mental health therapists on staff and they contract with a behavioral specialist through South Community, a nonprofit behavioral health group that works with adults and children. But district staff said previously they’d like to hire 10 more people to help.

Dayton Public Schools used part of its state funds to hire resiliency coordinators for each school through a partnership with Dayton Children’s Hospital, which helped the district streamline mental health care, particularly in West Dayton, the district said.

How teachers feel

Students aren’t the only people affected by what’s going on in schools. Teachers and staff also struggled this year.

Amy Holbrook, union president for Mad River schools and an instructional coach responsible for K-12 at Mad River, said students needs can be overwhelming for teachers.

“It’s just a constant need, and then things just kind of sometimes snowball,” Holbrook said.

Mad River is considering cutting five school therapist positions, citing deficit spending and falling enrollment.

Holbrook said teachers knew this year would not be easy, but they weren’t prepared for how hard it was.

“We could never have really prepared for, but at the same time, now that we’re experiencing them, there’s got to be a shift and change with how we’re coping with it,” Holbrook said.

Even in 2019, the community was dealing with the effects of the Memorial Day tornados and the Oregon District shooting. Now, the politicized environment around teaching feels like teachers’ expertise isn’t trusted, Cox said.

“I think we’ve politicized and weaponized certain aspects of public education when really we should just be trusting the experts and say you’re going to take the best care of my child while you have them in your care,” Cox said.

Parents should know what’s going on in the student’s classroom, Cox said. But resolving the politicization means rebuilding trust between parents and teachers that’s been lost.

Blessing said it also falls on administrators to make sure they are checking in with staff and giving them time off to be with their own families. Miamisburg has made a point of having opportunities for teachers to do yoga and checking in with other teachers, she said.

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She said she’s started to use the schedule send button – a feature in Gmail and Outlook that sends an email at a pre-specified time - so she knows she’s not interrupting staff during times when they should be with their families.

Northmont schools have tutors available for students who missed school days due to illness or other issues, which superintendent Tony Thomas said has helped take some of the pressure off teachers.

“Bringing in that resource to help with getting kids caught up that they’ve missed and so forth was a support to help more teachers,” Thomas said.

The district also has mental health resources available for teachers, he said.

Thomas said there were times in the year when the work felt overwhelming. But things are starting to get better.

Cox said people forget that teachers are human too. They all wake up and have responsibilities and on top of that, they have a job where they are responsible for the well-being of other people.

“Our job is taking care of other humans and it’s the greatest responsibility that we have,” Cox said. “And we take great pride in that. But it’s very heavy.”

CDC data illuminate youth mental health threats

. The 2021 CDC analyses said some of the severe challenges youth encountered during the pandemic:

  • More than half (55%) reported they experienced emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including swearing at, insulting, or putting down the student.
  • 11% experienced physical abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including hitting, beating, kicking, or physically hurting the student.
  • More than a quarter (29%) reported a parent or other adult in their home lost a job.

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