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Restorative circles, online wellness rooms and grief training: How schools are preparing for the coronavirus mental health crisis

In April, Patrick McCauley started staffing a hotline set up by the Los Angeles Unified School District. He heard from students and parents worried about their families and teachers who wanted advice for upset students. (Patrick McCauley)

The calls started at 6 a.m., and Patrick McCauley was ready, having retreated to the privacy of his garage, where he sat waiting for Angelenos to share how they are coping with the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic.

For the past 14 years, McCauley has worked as a mental health counselor and consultant in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In April, he began staffing a new hotline the district created to reach students, parents and teachers in need of mental health support and other services as the virus has forced people into isolation and cost jobs and lives.

One day, he heard from a fifth-grader who was terrified that her parents would catch the illness. Another day, a mother wanted advice on her once mild-mannered daughter, who had started throwing tantrums and yelling profanities after the quarantine began. Teachers wanted to know how to respond to students who appeared distraught during Zoom lessons, or what to do about the kids who didn’t log on at all.

McCauley, who has a soothing voice and a surfer’s unruffled mien, listened carefully and reassured the callers that they were experiencing understandable reactions to highly abnormal circumstances. Their testimony amounted to a warning, though, of what schools may face when they restart this fall: students with a history of mental health problems whose symptoms have worsened, students who may be experiencing anxiety or anger for the first time, children in households that have become financially precarious. More and more, schools are recognizing that academic learning may at times have to take a back seat to alleviating those challenges.

“Before we push anything at students academically, let’s ask how they’re doing, with no unrealistic expectations that we can somehow solve all their problems or magically fix everything and make all this go away, but just a lot of acknowledgment, a lot of listening to kids and trying to get them the support they need,” McCauley said.

Around the country, school leaders are trying to anticipate how these mental health burdens will shape what unfolds in classrooms and via screens during a school year in which the trauma is likely to worsen. Some school districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, are running hotlines to provide guidance and connect families to services. Other schools are offering grief training to teachers, counseling them on how to recognize signs of distress, and encouraging them to attend to their own emotional well-being. Still others are setting up virtual “wellness rooms” and unveiling new or expanded “social-emotional curricula” to help students process their feelings.

Research on the emotional toll of the pandemic on children is relatively scant, given how new the crisis is. But what does exist is worrisome: A study of more than 2,300 children who endured home confinement during the pandemic in China’s Hubei province found that nearly 23 percent reported symptoms of depression, and nearly 19 percent reported experiencing anxiety. In a review of past studies on loneliness and disease, researchers noted that, even early in the shutdown, more than a third of adolescents reported increased loneliness, which could make them more susceptible to depression and anxiety.

And yet even before the pandemic, many schools were overwhelmed with helping to fill gaps in health services and helping students develop emotional coping skills. Now their efforts may be further complicated by the education system’s looming financial crisis, which is expected to bring layoffs for teachers, counselors and other school employees who work closely with students and can provide emotional support. The virus’s resurgence has also made efforts to support students more difficult by prolonging their isolation and ending hopes for an immediate return to face-to-face instruction and counseling in much of the country.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where 42 percent of children live below the poverty line, has tried for more than a decade to prioritize its students’ social-emotional needs. Administrators hope that before the district reopens in early September for remote-only learning, teachers and principals will have an opportunity to participate in “restorative learning circles,” where they can report on how the pandemic has affected them. Then, when virtual learning begins, teachers would model those circles for their students, encouraging them to share their experiences since schools closed in March.

At the top of each school day, teachers would also do a “temperature check” of students, asking them how they’re doing, and mindfulness exercises would be sprinkled throughout the day, said William Stencil, who leads the district’s social-emotional work.

It’s not just the virus that is leaving students feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Next door, in the East Cleveland school district, Jerome West said he wants to make space this year for conversations about racial injustice, which some psychologists refer to as “the second pandemic.” In the spring, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, “kids were upset, they were angry, they were enraged, they thought, how is this still happening, this is 2020,” said West, executive director of the East Cleveland Neighborhood Center. The nonprofit center provides social-emotional support to the school district, where 99 percent of students are Black.

When schools shut down, the group held “wellness calls” with parents and ran virtual programs for small groups of students, including a You Matter Academy designed to help them cope with stress. Students reported feeling lonely, frustrated and concerned that teachers were piling on worksheets and other assignments to compensate for the lack of in-person classes, West said.

At some KIPP charter schools in New Jersey, teachers will receive training in suicide prevention, grief counseling and how to spot signs of distress in an online environment. This fall, teachers will also trade “calming corners” in classrooms for an online wellness space where students can listen to music, fill online coloring books or practice yoga on the school’s virtual-learning platform. If students seem upset, a teacher might message them through the virtual learning platform and encourage them to visit the Web tool, said Sheyla Riaz, director of social work for KIPP New Jersey.

As crises go, the pandemic is unusual in that it combines a public health emergency and an economic downturn while isolating kids from school, friends, activities and other support. Each of these emergencies has the potential to create adverse child experiences, known as ACES, that can have long-term consequences on children’s health and well-being.

Archana Basu, a clinical psychologist and researcher who sees patients in outpatient treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, noted that research after the 2008 recession showed increases in partner violence and child maltreatment, which are among the experiences that can make a child more vulnerable to later health problems.

This doesn’t mean that every child will experience trauma from the events of this year; most won’t. Sadness and anxiety are perfectly natural responses to the pandemic and typically don’t become clinical concerns, said Karestan Koenen, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. On the whole, children tend to be more resilient than adults, she said.

“What’s hard in a lot of these situations, after any disaster, is that a lot of people have symptoms of anxiety, depression, even PTSD,” Koenen said. “Some of that is going to be normal reactions to difficult circumstances, and in many people and kids, they will resolve over time. . . . But in some people, they won’t, and we can’t always predict well where the problem is.”

That reinforces the need for universal interventions such as the social-emotional work that some school districts are trying, experts say.

But efforts to intervene and help children can be expensive. Social-emotional lessons sometimes require curriculums that schools must purchase and professional development for teachers. Counseling and other one-on-one support for children who need greater attention are costly, and counselors are already stretched thin. Nationally, counselors serve an average of more than 430 students, and it is unclear whether schools will have the money to help students who need it at a time when falling tax revenue could force deep cuts in U.S. public education.

“It’s the opposite of robust,” Rachel Bauer, a parent in Memphis, said of the support available at the PK-8 school her daughter, Noel, attends. “It’s minimal, basic.”

Still, there are a few places that have made investments in counseling and support. In June, the Dallas Independent School District announced that it would hire more than 50 clinicians.

Pauline Agulefo, a clinician who has worked in the district for 10 years, said she is optimistic that teachers and administrators will find a way to meet students’ emotional and academic needs when schools reopen. “There’s no blueprint or examples of how this can be done, but we know it has to be done,” she said. “We have to get it done because kids, they have to learn.”

This story on mental health in schools was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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