Over the past year, extended school closures caused by Covid-19 have wreaked havoc on our nation’s students. Thousands have lost parents, grandparents, and family friends to the virus. Children and teenagers have suffered from a lack of routines and extracurricular activities and the inability to see their friends and classmates. Their moms and dads have dealt with fallout from unemployment and small business closures. And far too many have suffered from neglect and abuse, which have gone unreported.
Those hit hardest are the most disadvantaged children, especially kids in big-city school systems where reopening decisions have been mired in controversy, pushback, and distrust. And even before the pandemic, teenage suicide rates and other signs of psychological distress were on the rise. For all of these reasons, many students will need increased mental health support as they transition back into a full-time academic environment, and as they struggle to manage grief, anxiety, or other emotional responses to recent events that will require long-term monitoring and an ongoing response.
School leaders recognize this, citing students’ mental health as one of their top concerns. But many educators don’t feel confident in their ability to identify who in their classrooms might require additional mental health supports. And many schools lack a clear, coherent system for addressing these needs, with roughly 40 percent reporting that they currently address concerns on a “case by case basis.”
This needs to change. Now and in the near future, as children reacclimate to traditional in-person classrooms environments, schools must develop, implement, and maintain distinct plans to support students’ mental health. Ample federal resources are heading into school systems to help offset the costs. To be sure, schools must remain focused on their core academic missions, rather than try to become full-service mental health providers. But just as children can’t learn if they are hungry or can’t see the whiteboard, neither can they learn if they are suffering psychological distress.
This year’s Wonkathon will tackle these issues head-on. We are asking contributors to address this fundamental and genuinely challenging question: How can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?
Topics that contributors might want to consider addressing include:
- Triage: How can schools best implement formal or informal triage to identify what students need to support their learning, and establish a referral system to connect students with school- and community-based mental health resources?
- Targeted intervention: How should schools address the needs of students who are identified as requiring targeted intervention, be it for significant trauma or diagnosed serious mood, anxiety, or other behavioral disorders? What should be implemented in-house, versus with partners in healthcare systems and the larger community?
- Broader Social and Emotional Learning efforts: How can schools best establish a culture and instructional strategies that benefit all students, including a robust framework for social and emotional learning that promotes academic excellence, emotional well-being, and social connectedness?
- After-school time and extracurricular activities: How might schools use the afternoon hours to address students’ mental health needs—both to protect classroom time for academics, and because of the well-understood benefits of sports and other activities for students’ mental health? What role, if any, might faith-based organizations play?
What’s a Wonkathon?
For several years now, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have hosted an annual Wonkathon on our Flypaper blog to generate substantive conversation around key issues in education reform. We took a break in 2020 because of the pandemic, but 2019’s exploration of the best way to help students who are several grade levels behind engaged nineteen participants and can be found here.
As in years past, we’ll encourage our audience to vote for the “wisest wonk,” an honor previously conferred on such luminaries as Abby Javurek, Jessica Shopoff, Chase Eskelsen, Christy Wolfe, Seth Rau, Joe Siedlecki, McKenzie Snow, Claire Voorhees, Adam Peshek, and Patricia Levesque.
If you’re keen to jump in—and we hope you are—please let us know and indicate when we can expect your draft. We will publish submissions on a rolling basis, so send yours as soon as it’s practical for you, but no later than Friday, May 14. Aim for between 800 to 1200 words. Send your essay to Brandon Wright, Fordham’s Editorial Director, at [email protected], as soon as it’s ready. And please be sure to answer the fundamental question: How can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?
Let Brandon know if you have any questions. Otherwise, may the wisest wonk win!