School & District Management

Student Mental Health and Learning Loss Continue to Worry Principals

By Denisa R. Superville — January 15, 2021 3 min read
Student sitting alone with empty chairs around her.
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Almost a year into the coronavirus pandemic, nearly half of elementary school leaders say they haven’t received training on proper coronavirus health screening in schools from health experts.

And the same percentage—49 percent—say they still do temperature checks for those entering school buildings or boarding school buses — even though those have been deemphasized among health experts as useful screening practice. A higher percentage— 78 percent — use at-home symptom screening which allow parents to review their children’s and family members’ symptoms and possible exposure to positive coronavirus cases.

Those are among the findings in a survey released this week from the National Association of Elementary School Principals in its third poll of lower and middle school leaders since schools began shutting down last March because of the pandemic.

The results are similar to some recent reports on educators’ perspectives on pressing issues and continuing challenges for school leaders during this unusual school year. Among them: the need for additional mental health supports for students, troubling attendance rates among students learning remotely, and a call for more financial assistance to help schools and districts assist students who are behind academically.

The results of this survey reaffirm the enormous challenges that principals are facing in trying to lead learning communities in the middle of a pandemic.

Remote learning attendance—especially for students who don’t have the internet at home or who had attendance issues before the pandemic—continues to worry school and district leaders, the survey results show. Eighty-two percent of school leaders who responded said the pandemic had impacted student attendance.

And while those attendance issues are likely to compound learning loss—particularly among the most disadvantaged students—school leaders’ responses to the survey indicate that they didn’t have the staff or intervention programs in place to help those students get back on track. Only 8 percent thought they were setting aside significant sums of money to assist students who’re behind.

Schools have also adapted to the unusual 2020-21 school year to reflect changes in their communities:

  • 51 percent had adjusted their main mode of schooling since the start of the academic year—most likely a reflection of rising or declining coronavirus cases in the community as well as evolving science on how COVID-19 spreads and children’s role in spreading the disease.

  • Nearly all—99 percent—said they had developed quarantine and isolation protocols for staff and students.

  • 95 percent said they had ways to get reliable information and data on COVID-19 in their state and region.

  • And 95 percent said their staff wore masks at all times in school, while 91 percent said their students wore masks.

Outdoor Classrooms Not Widely Used

On the other hand, many schools have not improved ventilation. Only 59 percent said they’ve increase ventilation in classrooms, and few (23 percent) are holding some or all classes outdoors. (The survey did not ask why that was the case, but many schools can’t hold classes outdoor because of the weather, and ventilation upgrades are expensive, especially in old school buildings.)

The survey results are based on responses from 860 NAESP members.

NAESP Executive Director L. Earl Franks said the results “reaffirm the enormous challenges that principals are facing in trying to lead learning communities in the middle of a pandemic.”

“Whether it is implementing procedures to keep staff and students safe, trying to ensure reliable home internet access for students, addressing student learning loss, or boosting mental health and trauma sensitivity supports for students, principals are having to do more with less,” Franks said.

Franks added that while the recently passed coronavirus relief package would go a long way toward helping educators address some of those challenges, schools need more financial assistance in the longer term to counteract the fallout from the pandemic in schools.


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