December 2, 2023
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Ask most teachers or principals about the mental health of their students this year, and they will tell you stories of how much worse things are than normal: More fights in the hallway. Students unable to focus in class. Depression and sadness.

New federal data helps quantify just how much worse.

A survey released Tuesday documents the toll the pandemic has taken on students’ mental health, with 7 in 10 public schools seeing a rise in the number of children seeking services. Even more, 76 percent, said faculty and staff members have expressed concerns about depression, anxiety and trauma in students since the start of the pandemic.

Yet only about half of all schools said they were able to effectively provide needed services.

The results come as an enormously stressful school year draws to a close. They add to the evidence that the pandemic is leaving this generation of students with significant mental health challenges. Anecdotally, teachers report that students’ emotional growth was stunted during months or longer of remote schooling, and that many returned to the classroom without coping skills that would be typical for their ages.

“The pandemic has taken a clear and significant toll on students’ mental health,” said Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which conducted the survey.

The survey was conducted in April, before last week’s devastating massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex.

As a result of the rising needs, 2 in 3 schools increased the types or amount of mental health services available, the survey found. Almost all schools — 96 percent — provided at least some school-based mental health services, most commonly from a school counselor or licensed mental health provider employed by the school system.

In addition, just over half of schools offered teachers training on how to help students with their social, emotional or mental well-being, and nearly half created or expanded social and emotional health programs.

Seven in 10 schools said they have a program in place to address social and emotional learning, even as those programs have come under attack from conservatives in some communities.

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Separately, 28 percent of schools said they made changes to their daily or yearly academic calendars in hopes of mitigating mental health issues. In some places, that was a controversial move because it meant canceling classes on certain days, which caused families already exhausted by campus closures to scramble for care.

Indio High School in Southern California offers 14 support groups to address the social-emotional needs of students, Principal Derrick Lawson said. Groups address topics such as grief, wellness, anger management and social skills. Some are long term, and others meet for a short time.

Some 400 students, out of about 2,000 in the school, participate in at least one of the groups, he said. The school relies on outside providers and would run more groups, Lawson said, if he could find ways to staff them.

“We have greater need than we can find the people,” he said.

In many cases, he said, the pandemic brought to the surface long-standing mental health struggles. He likened it to what appears to be a calm pool of water. “If you drain the water, all of a sudden, you find all kinds of stuff.”

The federal survey found many school officials saying increased needs were not being met.

Just 12 percent of schools strongly agreed with the statement “My school is able to effectively provide mental health services to all students in need.” An additional 44 percent said they moderately agreed.

That left 44 percent who either disagreed or did not express a view. The most common reasons cited were insufficient staffing and, for about half of schools, insufficient funding.

The survey did not find any statistically significant differences on this question among schools based on the racial or economic demographics of their student bodies.

It also found middle and high schools were more likely than elementary schools to say they could serve all students.

The survey found that mental health needs were acute not just for students, but for school employees, too. About 3 in 10 schools reported an increase in workers seeking school-based mental health services, and 6 in 10 reported a rise in staffers’ concern over their own or their colleagues’ mental health.

Some schools responded to these heightened needs by providing additional professional development on mental health and more time to prepare for classes. Three in 10 offered additional paid time off, and 14 percent increased compensation.

The survey of 830 public K-12 schools from a sample chosen to be nationally representative was conducted April 12 to 26 by the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the federal Education Department. The survey, conducted monthly, was created to track the impact of the pandemic, including how much in-person schooling was being offered by districts.

Virtually all schools now offer in-person, full-time school and have for some time. The April survey did find a drop in the share of schools that had students out of the building because of quarantines, falling from 94 percent during the omicron surge in January to 30 percent in April.