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How Schools Can Help Kids Heal After the Pandemic’s Uncertainty

Kai Humphrey, 9, has been learning from home for more than a year. He badly misses his Washington, D.C., elementary school, along with his friends and the bustle of the classroom.

tranquil, televised painting lessons from the 1980s and ’90s, Sackett decided to work him into their morning routine.

“We watch five minutes of Bob Ross, and we watch the whole painting session within one week,” she explained. “When they’re having fun, they’re so excited — they’ll learn anything you throw at them.”

Sackett said her approach was informed by a virtual training, provided by Chicago’s Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, that focused on the impacts of trauma on children.

“They mentioned a bad grade is never about a lazy kid,” she said. If a child is struggling academically, they may be dealing with really tough circumstances at home. Sackett learned that teachers can help by creating a supportive environment that fosters resilience.

Sheyla Ramirez, an eighth grader at Sackett’s school, has benefited a lot from daily check-ins with her teacher. Last fall, her family came down with covid, and her baby sister ended up hospitalized before she recovered. Sheyla’s uncle had died after testing positive for the virus months earlier. She said it was a really stressful time, especially for her sister in third grade.

“My sister was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to die,’” Sheyla remembered. “I didn’t know what to tell her because I was in shock, too.”

School staff members routinely checked in to see if she or her family needed anything, and they offered to connect Sheyla with a school counselor. But Sheyla said the short daily lessons in mindfulness at the start of each school day — and being able to share her feelings and concerns with her teacher — were enough to help her get through.

“They’ve been doing an excellent job,” said Sheyla’s mom, Amparo Ramirez. “I’ve been telling them, ‘I’m thankful for you being here.’”

When More Serious Help Is Needed

For many kids, a little morning circle time with a caring teacher, or an occasional chat with a school counselor is all they need. And the more schools invest in promoting mental health and equipping children with social-emotional skills, the fewer children will go on to develop more serious problems, said child psychiatrist Biel.

But there will always be children who need more intensive interventions, which could involve school social workers and psychologists, when available, or a referral to a mental health professional beyond the school.

Kai has been talking regularly with a therapist through his elementary school. And he said she has helped him come up with strategies to manage his stress at home.

“I would go in my room, lay on my bed, and either watch TV or play with my toys or do something like that,” Kai said. “And then I’ll come back out when I’m more calm and happy.”

As a solo parent, Kai’s mom, Humphrey-Wall, has also had a tough year. She admitted that looking after two kids, in addition to taking on a new job, during a pandemic has been stressful. “In the beginning, I think I had depression, anxiety … anything you can think of, I probably had it.”

Biel said that kind of stress can trickle down to children.

“All of the best evidence-based practices in the world are not going to have the desired effect if that child is living in a family that’s overwhelmed by stress,” he explained.

“In the beginning [of the pandemic] I think I had depression, anxiety… anything you can think of, I probably had it,” Humphrey-Wall says.(Elissa Nadworny/NPR)

One of the best ways to address that is to also help caregivers, like Humphrey-Wall. And that’s exactly what Kai’s school has done. Through a partnership with MedStar Georgetown Center for Wellbeing in School Environments, Kai’s school arranged for Humphrey-Wall to meet with a clinical psychologist once a week for what they call “parent wellbeing sessions.”

Without it, she said, “I don’t know what I would have done, really.”

Partnerships between schools and mental health care providers can be expensive for districts and may not be an option in rural or under-resourced areas where there simply aren’t enough child-focused services.

Biel said he’s hopeful the rise in telehealth will help. But whatever the solution, he said, schools need support as they explore their options.

“Schools can’t beg, borrow and steal from what they already have to do this,” Biel said. “We need to support schools and school systems with more resources to make this possible.”

Federal Help for Schools

For districts that want to do more, the latest covid relief package could be a big help. The American Rescue Plan contains roughly $122 billion for K-12 schools, some of which can be used to hire more counselors, social workers and psychologists. And one U.S. senator has been pushing the Biden administration to emphasize mental health as it guides districts on how to spend that money.

“Not all schools and districts are equipped to work on these complex mental and behavioral health issues and meet the unique needs of today’s students,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto wrote in a letter to the secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. “Many suffer from drastic shortages of counselors, social workers, and psychologists to work with students even under normal circumstances. They will need robust assistance from community-based service providers and the health care community.”

Cortez Masto said a recent spate of student suicides in one county in her state, Nevada, underscores just how urgent the needs are.

“This is a unique situation we’re in, hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” she said. “We don’t know the impact it’s going to have long term [on] our kids. But we know the short term. I’ve seen it here in southern Nevada and its devastating consequence here. So we’ve got to change that dynamic.”

In the U.S., where access to health care — especially for children’s mental health — is inequitable and inconsistent, the difficult work of identifying and tending to the mental and emotional health of this pandemic generation will fall largely on the shoulders of educators.

Programs like the one at Kai’s school, in Washington, D.C., could play a critical role in helping change that dynamic. Cortez Masto hopes the flood of federal relief dollars will help other districts create similar partnerships with child mental health providers, or find other solutions.

In the meantime, Kai and his mom are trying to figure out when Kai will return to in-person school. Humphrey-Wall said it would be good for her son to get out of the house, but Kai still fears bringing covid home. He’s talking it through with his school-based therapist, doing his best to give those worries a roundhouse kick:

“We all need to be free from this quarantine. I’m going crazy. I want to be free!” Kai shouted. He’s eager to get back to the business of making friends with the entire world.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: dial 711, then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes NPR, Illinois Public Media and Kaiser Health News.

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