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How Are Educators Prioritizing Students' Mental Health?

In light of the coronavirus, educators are trying to figure out how to support students' mental and emotional health as well as their online learning.
Posted at 3:19 PM, Apr 08, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has forced schools in the majority of states to cancel in-person classes for at least part of the remaining academic year, leaving many educators trying to figure out how to support students’ mental and emotional health as well as their online learning.

“Kids right now, through this pandemic, are experiencing a major disruption to one of the primary support systems they have in their day-to-day lives, which is their schooling," said Kathleen Minke, executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Experts say it can be tough for students to learn when they may not be feeling emotionally present with all that’s going on in the world right now. 

“You can think about this in your own life, when you’re very, very worried, how well do you learn a new task," said Minke. "When you’re feeling comfortable and safe and supported in your environment, then you can learn a new task.” 

In a March survey of more than 2,400 members of Colorado’s teachers union, educators indicated they’re worried about what’s currently happening outside the classroom and how it can impact kids’ learning inside it. 

Leticia Guzman Ingram teaches at a Colorado high school. She spent three days last week connecting with students using an old-school method: the telephone. 

“We ask, 'How are you doing? How have you been feeling? What are your fears? Are you doing something you haven’t done before?'" she said. "And we even ask about, you know, if anyone’s sick or if anyone’s lost a job, anything just to get them to talk.” 

Ingram’s district has a mental health counselor and other resources she can connect students with, but she says she can best provide that support by talking to each individual student.

Other educators across the country are boosting their online efforts with non-digital ways to connect with students. But replicating the in-person interactions students may rely on is tough. 

“The technology part isn’t affecting our students," said David Ryan, a school superintendent in New Hampshire. "Believe it or not, it’s the lack of the physical connection that they have with their peers, with their teachers, and the associated staff in the school, that routine, that structure of waking up in the morning, brushing your hair, brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, going to school, being with your peers.”

Ryan calls his teachers “superheroes,” but admits they’re overwhelmed. While he says the district knows they’ll have academic gaps to address later, he’s concerned about students’ social-emotional health right now. 

So they’re going on a break.

In a letter he wrote to families, he said an upcoming five-day pause on schoolwork will allow them to quote “give students, parents, and teachers a break from the new pressure that remote learning has introduced in the home,” adding that prioritizing students' mental wellness now could lessen future impacts.

“I want them to close their laptop, put their phone aside, except for when they’re talking with family, and just enjoy each other’s company without the pressure of outside responsibilities," he said.