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School & District Management Opinion

COVID-19 Ripped Through Our Emotional Safety Net. Here’s How My District Responded

Pandemic precautions need to account for student mental health
By Jonathan Cooper — July 22, 2021 2 min read
A young man stands under a street light on a lonely road.
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Before COVID-19 ripped through the sense of physical and emotional safety of our community, we thought we were ready to meet mental-health challenges. Three years before the pandemic hit, a group of high school students had invited me and a few other local district leaders into a critical conversation to discuss the growing mental-health crisis in our district. Over several years, an unhealthy culture of competition had contributed to tragic student suicides.

I will never forget that meeting. It was a reality check for our whole community. And the school district responded. We decided that we could not let our students struggle alone and in silence. We not only heard their cry for help, we began to address each and every issue associated with the culture of competition. We examined everything—including what we celebrated, how we graded, when school started—as we launched systematic peer-to-peer suicide-prevention programming for grades 7-12.

Like our colleagues around the country, my staff members and I spent an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources addressing COVID-19 prevention this past year. We spent the entire summer in 2020 preparing the necessary accommodations for students to return to our schools safely. It seemed like every conversation and effort was 100 percent focused on COVID-19.

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Then, the mental-health effects of the pandemic hit us. Despite our three-year effort to support children’s mental health, we found an alarming increase in suicidal ideation among our students this past year. Even though a majority of the young people in our district were able to return to in-person learning, the heavy weight of the pandemic, combined with the social isolation and uncertainty about the future, created an urgent crisis of student safety.

During fall 2020, we faced a frightening reality. In a three-week period, more than a dozen students were hospitalized for serious mental-health crises, marking a threefold increase in the rate of students experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Thanks to the students who rang the alarm three years ago, we already had a comprehensive support system in place to address mental health across our entire district. Yet even with all our experts, programs, relationships, and community partnerships, we found ourselves with an entirely new level of challenges around the well-being of our school community.

It wasn’t just the students suffering. I heard from a growing number of staff members who reached out asking for assistance around their own mental-health struggles. The pandemic essentially flipped the iceberg on its head, showing us the depth of our community’s silent struggles.

We will continue to fight the good fight. A key takeaway for me is that this is not simply a school issue. If we truly want to help our students and create a healthier future for our world, we will need to come together as a community to champion mental wellness. And we can’t let our students, teachers, and staff suffer without support, alone, and in silence.

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