Schools Struggle to Meet Students' Mounting Mental-Health Needs

Principal Kristina MacBury of Sarah Pyle Academy in Wilmington, Del., checks in with a student from her home office.
Principal Kristina MacBury of Sarah Pyle Academy in Wilmington, Del., checks in with a student from her home office.
—Courtesy of Sherry MacBury

Pandemic brought new challenges

| Corrected: May 4, 2020
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“We’re screwed.” That’s what principal Kristina MacBury is hearing over and over again from her students at Sarah Pyle Academy.

Sarah Pyle is a dropout-recovery program in Wilmington, Del., and its students, ages 16 to 21, face a lot of hardships in the best of times: They may be the primary breadwinners in their families. Some have kids of their own; others are taking care of sick parents. Many are homeless.

Now, as a historic recession takes shape amid the pandemic, these students are worried about finding work to bolster their families’ earnings or losing jobs they already have. They’re upset about the prospect of not getting a traditional graduation—a major milestone for any young adult but one that may be especially hard-won for Sarah Pyle’s graduates.

“I have kids whose parents are kicking them out because they don’t have a job or because they’re not getting along—they never got along,” said MacBury. “We have a significant amount of [students with] parents that either have cancer or other health issues and this really drove their anxiety through the roof.”


See Also: Coronavirus and Schools


For many of these students, the school was a respite from tumultuous home lives, but like thousands of others across the country, its building is closed to in-person classes to rein in the spread of the coronavirus. All MacBury can do now is tell her students that she and the staff at Sarah Pyle have their backs and tend to their students’ mental and emotional needs as best they can from a distance.

“I need you to worry about being balanced, about being centered, about being healthy, about using your strategies. If not, you know where to go to if you start feeling some kind of way,” MacBury advises her students through phone calls, emails, and online meetings. “Other kids have been reaching out, ‘I don’t feel like myself. Can you please help me, stay on the line with me while I call the mental-health hotline?’”

While these students’ needs may be especially acute, Sarah Pyle is not alone. Schools across the country are scrambling to prop up students emotionally and mentally during frightening, uncertain times when their ability to respond is greatly diminished.

For educators, school psychologists, and school counselors, who have traditionally relied heavily on in-person interactions to gauge and boost their students’ well-being, this period poses unique challenges and high stakes.

“I think for school-based practitioners, our work has always been face to face with students,” said Dede Bailer, the coordinator of psychological services at Virginia’s Fairfax County public schools, one of the nation’s largest districts. “So, for us, the absence of the opportunity to see students face to face has been our biggest obstacle.”

Nationwide Shortages

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, many schools were straining under the burgeoning mental health demands of their students. In many areas, schools have become the de facto mental health-care providers for children.

“Unfortunately, there is a shortage of mental health providers in general in many communities and so more has fallen upon the schools to address the mental health needs of kids,” said John Kelly, a school psychologist at the Commack school district in New York and a former board director for the National Association of School Psychologists.

Anxiety, depression, and suicide rates have been steadily growing among school-age children. At the same time, there is a national shortage of school psychologists, according to NASP, to meet the rising need.

Now, add to that social isolation, anxiety over parents losing jobs, fears of loved ones falling ill, no respite from conflicts with family, and grief over death or missing important milestones such as graduation. The culmination of all of that will have a corrosive effect on students’ mental health, said Franci Crepeau-Hobson, a professor at Colorado University’s School of Education and Human Development.

“This is such a different animal,” she said of the current situation, “In that it’s not what we would call an acute traumatic stressor—those have a discrete beginning and end. This has a potential for chronic traumatic stress where people are walking around in this state of elevated arousal.”

Living day in and out in a fight-or-flight mode taxes the brain and the body, said Crepeau-Hobson.

“We can’t access our cortex and higher-order thinking,” she said. “We know that chronic stress is associated with all kinds of physical illnesses and diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes … Then [there is] this increased risk for anxiety disorders and depression because people feel hopeless.”

Struggling to Keep Up

Now, with school buildings shuttered and in-person meetings largely banned, schools are struggling to provide anywhere near the same level of mental health support to students remotely as they did before the pandemic.

While over 90 percent of district leaders have a plan in place for continuing to support their students’ mental health, less than a quarter say they’ve been able to meet students’ needs to the same degree as before the pandemic, according to a recent survey by the Education Week Research Center. For urban schools, only 5 percent of superintendents say they have been able to provide the same level of mental health supports as before.

“The kids I’m most concerned about are the kids I haven’t heard back from,” said Shawna Rader-Kelly, a school psychologist at Bozeman High School in Bozeman, Mont. “The kids that are engaged in the learning and are in pretty supportive environments, they seem to be doing OK.” For the others, “I’m not sure how to keep that support going except to keep checking in.”

Rader-Kelly and one other school psychologist serve a school of 2,400 students. They’re trying to keep tabs on the students they had already identified as at risk for mental health issues while also looking for warning signs among students who weren’t previously having issues.

“We will look at a list of kids who were on our radar,” she said. “But we’re also reaching out to teachers and saying, ‘if you have concerns because a kid hasn’t engaged or a student has reached out to you’ … so they don’t feel like they’re on an island—trying to support a student who needs help. We’re trying to open up those lines of communication so that we can continue to monitor those students that we’ve been concerned about but also keeping an eye open for students whose circumstances might have changed.”

Privacy Issues Loom Large

Not being able to meet with students in person has been a big challenge for school psychologists and counselors. Another hurdle: It’s tough to provide adequate confidentiality when meeting with students virtually.

Boston Public Schools is continuing to provide counseling services virtually to students and their parents. But it’s not as simple as just hopping on a Zoom meeting, said Andria Amador, the director of Behavioral Health Services at Boston Public Schools.

“When you’re seeing a child in your office at your school, you have a secure environment,” she said. “But in a home where there are other kids or other family members, or some of our families who are homeless … there may not be a physical location for the child to go and have a confidential conversation.”

The district has been training its mental health staff since schools closed on how to provide teletherapy.

Instead of discussing deeply personal issues with students in ways that may run afoul of confidentiality rules, Amador said, school psychologists and counselors in her district are using that time to help students strengthen their coping skills—whether it be breathing exercises to manage anxiety, developing time-management strategies, or brainstorming ideas for how to get along with family members.

In Fairfax County, the district has started offering counseling sessions to all of the district’s middle and high school students, regardless of whether they were previously considered at risk, as well as their parents. Parents can call in if they have concerns or are having issues with their children, said Bailer. So far, 60 percent of the appointments have been for parents.

On its COVID-19 resource page, the district also invites parents to submit tips and ideas for keeping families happy and occupied that the district then shares with other families.

Kelly, the school psychologist in New York, has focused on supporting teachers and parents, and helping them deal with their emotions so they can, in turn, help students.

“Kids will take their cue from the adults around them,” he said. “Self-care is very important for adults.”

While Kelly is giving teachers resources to teach students how to cope and regulate their emotions—such as breathing or mindfulness exercises—he is also encouraging the adults to model those skills, in addition to eating healthily and getting adequate sleep and exercise.

“We are a profession that wants to help others, and so we struggle and become frustrated and demand certain things that right now are not feasible or possible,” said Kelly. “Instead of focusing on those limitations, really try to enhance or focus on the things that are possible: just maintaining those connections.”

Relief for Some

For some select students, being out of school may have the reverse effect of improving their mental health, if they were being bullied or had extreme social or test anxiety before their school was shut down.

“I have had some students who are actually doing OK because we have removed some of the things that have caused them stress and anxiety—school and social situations,” said Rader-Kelly.

Even at Sarah Pyle, the dropout recovery school, some students are excelling as they work remotely.

“We have kids who have gotten so many credits. … There are a lot of kids this is really working for them,” said their principal, MacBury.

But that seemingly bright spot quickly pales in comparison to the avalanche of needs students will likely have when they return to school. Many students will be trying to make up for lost learning time while coping with job loss or death in their families, say the psychologists Education Week spoke to for this article.

Nobody can really predict the extent to which the coronavirus pandemic will affect students’ mental health long-term, but schools need to start planning for this right now, said Rader-Kelly, the school psychologist in Montana.

“Even though it is so ambiguous right now,” said Rader-Kelly. “We have to talk about, how do we screen kids and support them when they return?”

The bottom line, said Amador, the director of Behavioral Health Services at Boston Public Schools, is that more school psychologists are needed “because when we come back from this there are going to be a lot of mental health needs.”

Vol. 39, Issue 32, Page 8

Published in Print: May 13, 2020, as Schools Struggle to Meet Students' Mounting Mental-Health Needs
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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story misstated the age range of students served by Sarah Pyle Academy.

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