Schools have spent the past few years dealing with a global viral pandemic, what experts have called a “parallel” pandemic for teen mental health, and the teacher and principal burnout that have stemmed in part from the burdens both these crises have placed on educators.
What will 2023—and beyond—have in store? Here’s a look at what’s “in” (hot and relevant) and “out” (becoming less relevant or falling out of favor) when it comes to taking care of the physical and social and emotional needs of students and educators.
1. Supporting teacher mental health
Superficial self-care: Thinking of telling teachers to take a restorative walk or do some yoga in the same breath that you’re piling on more work? Don’t bother. Many see it as well-intentioned but ineffective at best, and patronizing at worst.
Community care: Teachers want school leaders who are honest about the challenges educators face, and who can help find realistic ways for educators to support one another.
2. Why is everyone sick?
The COVID pandemic: We know, COVID is still here and will likely stay. And child COVID vaccination rates vary widely by state, from 17 percent in Alabama to 77 percent in the District of Columbia. But COVID-19 isn’t the only major illness around anymore.
The “tripledemic": COVID isn’t the only virus to worry about. Annual peaks for RSV—respiratory syncytial virus—and the flu hit earlier than anticipated. Part of the problem: Immunity may be down after years of mask-wearing and isolation. “All kids of all ages are getting sick right now with so many circulating viruses. It’s really taking a toll on schools as kids are missing days sick and sharing germs with friends even before they show symptoms,” said Tanya Altmann, a California-based pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Teachers are also getting sick more frequently, which places an additional burden on the schools, she added.
3. Coping with student trauma related to the pandemic
Adjusting to in-person learning: When schools returned to in-person learning after months or even an entire year of mostly virtual classes, many students spent the year remembering how to behave around other kids their age, follow school rules, and cope with having less autonomy over their schedule than they may have had at home. This school year, that hasn’t been as much of a concern, educators say. “I think there’s a thirst for structure,” said Ashley Wright, a school counselor at Gordon-Reed Elementary School near Houston in a recent interview. “They just haven’t had it firmly, consistently.”
The long-term impact on students: It’s becoming increasingly clear that the pandemic may have a lasting impact on the mental health of an entire generation of students. Case-in-point: Compared to teenagers coming of age before the pandemic, those who experienced 10 months of lockdowns in 2020 showed three to four years of premature aging, according to new research. At this point, it’s too early to tell whether the shift is temporary or permanent, but either way, schools should be paying close attention to anxiety, depression, and stress in teens, researchers say.
4. COVID mitigation policies
Universal mask mandates: In spring 2022, schools started to shed their masking mandates. By October, the school policy tracking website, Burbio, reported that no schools had masking mandates and that it would no longer track the issue.
Targeted masking: But masks aren’t entirely gone. With a surge in RSV and flu infections combined with COVID-19, some districts and schools have recently reinstated temporary masking requirements to help prevent student and staff absences. And in Virginia, parents of immunocompromised children with disabilities won a court case to require that their children’s classmates and teachers be required to wear masks.
5. Social-emotional learning
SEL jargon: This one is a bit of a bold prediction. A recent Education Week poll found that most educators view social-emotional learning favorably and the biggest barrier to incorporating it into the classroom is time, not parental or community pushback. But over the past two years, social-emotional learning has gotten caught up in larger political battles over education, and a 2021 poll by the Fordham Foundation found that while social-emotional skills are popular with parents, the phrase social-emotional learning is not. So, with the term SEL becoming more politized, while many of the skills that SEL fosters remain popular with parents, educators, and business leaders, maybe SEL is in for a rebranding in 2023? Life skills, anyone?
Social-emotional skills: Eighty-six percent of educators in a recent EdWeek Research Center poll said that their school or district teaches social-emotional learning. Combined with the heightened emotional needs of students coming out of the pandemic, it’s safe to say that teaching skills like managing emotions and setting goals will remain important in 2023.